Friday, December 25, 2009

India: 1 month in (another email)

I'm sorry to flood your inboxes again...I am just so excited after spending 8-9 hours on the phone and videochat yesterday with family and friends. I've effectively received my 30th wind.

Fashion alert the first: Grab your bellbottoms from the back of the closet. THEY ARE IN!!! Well, “in” in India. It’s actually funny though. The majority of those wearing the bellbottoms are the super skinny ones; the more rotund ones (and yes there are lots of those) tend to wear a more conservative straight-legged trouser.

It’s been 36 days in India and things are just peachy (mangoes are out of season)—phew, thank God my jokes are still so fresh. I haven’t lost my mind, or my wallet, or my dignity yet. Maybe the jury is still out on the losing my mind thing. I wish I could say that I was starting to fit in; however, the fact that people still stare me up and down and poke me tells me that “fitting in” will never be an option.

One part of me that is certainly fitting in is my smell. The curry makes a nice bouquet when mixed with the generic Indian laundry detergent. After meals it’s just impossible to get the smell of curry off my fingers and I’m sure that my clothes wreak of it. But that’s all part of the game. I wanted the curry smell and I got it; I wouldn’t be a true spice traveler without it. But here are two things that I don’t think I’ll conform to:

1) Holding hands with an Indian man who just met me. A large proportion of men hold hands and hang onto each other’s waist or shoulder. It’s just normal, but I can’t help but be uncomfortable when there are a bunch of Indian guys that want to hold on to my waist. Last week I went to see Avatar with these guys from the gym. The whole night, one of the guys was trying to hang onto my waist…not cool, dude!

2) I will not be hocking loogies to and fro in crowded streets! It’s very common for both men and women to spit in the streets and in the train station…really anywhere. In a ten minute rickshaw ride, your rickshaw driver is guaranteed to spit at least 7 times!

Now for some general observations on India.

One thing that is very obvious is the lack of drainage. When I saw pictures before I came to India in November, they portrayed streets filled with 2-3 ft. of water after monsoon rains. The fact of the matter is that the smallest rainstorm will flood the streets with over 1 foot of rain. Small rainstorms are rare, however…when God turns the faucet on over here, he really turns it on. One of the first things I noticed when I came here was that the curbs on the streets are extremely high…hmmm, it seems like investment is going toward building the wrong thing. Build drains!! The other thing that is obvious about this problem is that stagnant water is here to stay. As a result, mosquitoes will always be squatting in peoples’ homes. Disease will also continue to be a problem, especially considering that half the population still walks barefoot through the streets!

India has just been declared the most polluted country in the world, and I will definitely back that. There are no trash cans and that means that every single person will throw their garbage on the sidewalk or street. I can sense no compunction when I see someone throwing their sandwich wrapper in the street…it’s crazy and drives me bonkers! As I sit in the coffee shop at this moment, I can see a man washing his mouth out and spitting it into a very large body of stagnant water in the street filled with garbage. Eeee gads!

The curious smells that sting the nostrils also emit from these bodies of water. When you cross the river in Chennai, you will notice a couple of things: one is that the river runs brown and emits a very pungent raw sewage smell; the other is that the straw hut slums line the banks of the river. Yes, the people still bathe and wash clothes in that water.

Most of the people that I meet are very nice and almost too polite. The deference that I’m paid is very disconcerting. I’ll tell you what would make my day…if my waiter at the coffee shop came up to me and punched me in the face instead of asking me if he can clear my coffee cup from my table. I would greet that act with a smile.

I don’t want to make this email too long, so I’ll briefly comment on some of the food goings on in this country. Basically, you have two categories of food, veg and non-veg (as they are affectionately called). Non-veg almost certainly means chicken and mutton; however, I visited a southwestern (Kerala) restaurant the other night and had beef for the first time in a month. It was marinated in coconut, coriander, black pepper, salt, cilantro and probably cumin and chili powder. I’m getting pretty good at identifying the spices used in different dishes without seeing it cooked. Kerala, the area of the country where this restaurant originates, contains Syrian Christians, Jews and Muslims, and they certainly do not have any qualms about eating beef. Watch out Bessy!! I know that the coexistence of those three religions in a small area sounds like a ticking time bomb, but they have been living in harmony over there for hundreds of years. It’s where Vasco Da Gama built his spice empire and I will be traveling there on January 5, so I’ll report more then.

Here in Chennai, you will find that the food glistens with butter and ghee (if you were to melt butter and let it sit, the ghee is the clear stuff that separates on top—clarified butter). The chefs insist on telling me that the copious amounts of fat in the food are necessary for the dispersal of the spices’ volatile oils, but I know that to be false. You only need a small amount of fat for dispersal. The common vegetables used in dishes are cauliflower, peas, carrots, potatoes, drumsticks (like a big okra), bottle gourd (like zucchini), beets, peppers, onions, lotus flowers, turnips, green and red chillies, and corn. You’ll notice that a few of these are “new world” adaptations, namely corn, peppers, chillies and potatoes. What I mean by “new world” is that they came from the Americas back when Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama were rockin’ the waters. Who can resist a potato, right?

So, not only are ghee and butter added to these dishes, but, the ingredients are commonly deep-fried in sunflower oil before being sautéed. The dishes will usually fall into another two categories besides veg and non-veg; that is, they are either a gravy dish or a dry dish. Gravy just means that the dish is a little more liquid and can be sopped up with some rice or wheat based “sponge.” I’ll save the description of these “sponges” for another post.

So, wrapping things up a bit, this means that the Indian diet (I’m generalizing a lot here because the cuisine is so diverse) is predominately carbohydrate and fat based. This produces a lot of fat people…a very gelatinous fat, not the typical American rotund fat because there is not as much muscle to back up the fat underneath. About 4 weeks ago I had my fat content measured at the local gym. According to the charts, a typical Indian male will have a fat content that measures anywhere from 18-24%. Females usually come in at about 10% higher than males. I came in at 11%, if you must know, which means that I am (or was) 2% fattier than when I left the states. I guess that’s not too much of a surprise considering that I’ve been gourging on international cuisine for 6 months or so. Interestingly though, I conducted an experiment over the course of the month, which consisted of me doing intense weight training about 4-5 days a week while eating only the typical Indian cuisine. After 30 days, I can report that I have not succeeded in gaining any muscle mass. I’ve only become a bit stronger and leaner. If I were eating my typical American diet of 65% protein, 25% carbs, and 10% other, I would probably have gained a solid amount of muscle mass. Conducting this experiment cost me a couple of dollars a day. Can you imagine how much I would have to pay to do the same experiment in the states? Consider this: a typical Indian meal in Central New York will cost me between $10-15. Yikes!

I realize that my Christmas note sounded a bit downtrodden. Upon later inspection, I determined that I wrote the note in the five-minute span when I was most wistful and homesick. Yes, there are some things over here that can really pull at your heartstrings; however, on the whole, I am still bubbly and bright-eyed, ready for my next adventure. Bring it on!

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! And a blissful New Year!

My wistful Christmas email to family and friends

As I sit below my stocking, I can't help but realize the stark contrast this Christmas poses against all former Christmases. When I open my window, I'm greeted with heat and humidity, not the cold winter chill that initiates the drinking of hot chocolate. When I walk outside, sweat beading across my forehead, there is no snow to pick up and throw at my friends. Glancing about, there are no trees, no tinsel, no lit up houses--just my stocking above my head, swaying in the breeze of the fan.

My home away from, well, my guesthouse has been the little coffee shop up the road that has set up a very small plastic Christmas tree next to its counter. I sit in that coffee shop for hours brushing up on some economics readings, but the real reason is because I can order ginger snaps with whip cream on top and listen to Christmas music coming through the speakers. It makes me homesick, yes, but my time could not be better spent any other way.

I just received a package full of candy and gifts sent by my family; the stocking above my head was enclosed. I felt like a little school boy as I rushed to the balcony with my brown parcel and placed it on the ground between my legs. Times like this don't need a chair, just an open piece of floor and lots of space for throwing wrappings. Two of the guys that work at the guesthouse, Ravi and Rajesh, brushed aside their duties of cleaning my room to rush to the balcony also. They've never experienced Christmas. I think their faces were just as lit up as mine as I pulled package after package of candy out of the box. I had a hard time explaining why my Christmas card was all scribbles...my nephews were degraded to little people in order to get my point across.

I immediately fetched a plate from the guesthouse kitchen and piled it high with all sorts of goodies for the guys that work here. I don't think they experience too much kindness. They all work 7 days a week and don't even have a space to stay. When I come home at 1 or 2 am sometimes, I can see them all scattered about on the floor, many of them cuddled up with each other, a single candle lit in the corner to keep the mosquitoes away. Some are in the lobby, some in the dining room, and the remainder in the kitchen. There are about 10 of them. Just the smiles and ambiguous excitement that ensued from the sight of the candy laden plate was enough for my Christmas present. One of the smaller guys walked up to me and shook my hand saying, "Happy Christmas!" Wonderful.

So on this Christmas Eve, I want to thank all of you for your love and support, your kind wishes, and your season's greetings. You've all influenced my life in some way shape or form, and for that I am forever grateful. From my religion to yours, Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Season's Greetings! Happy Holidays!

With much love,
Ethan

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My first day in India

November 23, 2009; 8 pm:

The morning of November 21 at 9:30, I awoke to a knock at the door. I was greeted with a smaller guy who looked at me and said, “brefa,” which I took to mean breakfast. Just to make sure, he made the motion of eating. I told him I’d be right down…in so many charades. I quickly slapped on a pair of jeans and bustled down the narrow stairway to the dining room. There was a single table with about 6 place settings. There were two men sitting at the table, one very large and jolly looking with a pair of rectangular specs sitting on his face, the second one a smaller guy wearing a red and black nylon jersey. One of the servers came up to me and said, “omele?” I of course agreed to that, because it sounded a lot like the familiar English word ‘omelette.’ He brought me out a delicious milky and sugary coffee, no doubt the famous Chennai filtered coffee that I’d read about, followed by a plate sized omelette with onions and jalapenos in it with 5 pieces of white toast on the side. Do they think I’m American or something? Haha. I gladly accepted and got to work quickly, but soon noticed that they were bringing Indian food to the other men across the table, so I put on my “I’m really curious” look and pointed at what they had. The server’s charades indicated that he understood that I wanted some of the Indian food also, which he quickly produced. The food consisted of a bowl of lentil soup made with red chillies, parsley, basil, anise, and some other spices, rice pancakes (dosas), and some other paste that was just as spicy as everything else I was eating that morning. I found out later that all of that food cost me only 50 cents…I was shocked!

Seeing the men across the table, I did what I do in every other situation where there are people, I started a conversation in English hoping that the others speak English. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could understand the large gentleman quite well. I asked them how long they were staying, and the big guy said he’d been here for 3 years and probably would be staying a bit longer. The smaller guy also was there for an extended stay. Next question: What do you do? The big guy, whose name I learned was Ivan, said that he was a regional manager for a company named Datacraft, which is a software development company partnered with Cisco sytems in the U.S.. Yet another sign of the Indian IT and technology boom. He’s a business and marketing guy. The other guy, whose name is Patma, works for Tata motors. Tata basically deals with everything from salt to motors. The fact of the matter is that Ivan and I are now really good friends based on that first conversation. We talked all about the stock markets, Indian companies, market cap, blah blah, finance, blah. We make a good pair. After our conversation, I hurried back up the stairs to my room, because I knew that Raghavendra, my contact in Chennai, would be back for me.

It was my first rickshaw ride and I was pumped! Raghavendra, my contact in Chennai, had flagged down one of these motorized yellow buggys with three golf cart wheels, bike handlebars for steering, and a very rickety bench in the back. He had agreed on a price of 120 rupees. Barely had my butt hit the vinyl bench before the barefooted driver pulled an emergency brake looking lever in the floor, sparking a throaty dirt-bike noise from the engine of the vehicle. We were off! First of all, I’m just completely confused by this driving on the left hand side of the road thing, but if that’s not enough, then the people crossing four lanes of traffic, sudden stops, impetuous u-turns, and honking certainly pushed my mind into boggledom. I looked at my knuckles, the capillary action turning them white as I clenched the thin, rusted bar in front of me. I didn’t loose my grip.

I eyed the now sun-bathed and bustling shops on the street, most of them in Hindi, but some throwing in some English words. Most of the signs are dingy pixilated with a worn, pastel look to them. There were people lying, sitting, kneeling, standing, etc., etc.. Some were cooking dosas on their wooden carts with bike wheels, others lentil soup (dal) with chapatti (a bread). There was no sign of hygiene amongst the dirt and trash, but they didn’t seem to care. There were vendors of every kind—electronics, baked goods, lime sodas, freshly pressed sugarcane drinks, a neon sign advertising insurance every now and again. The heat and the humidity seemed to temper as the breeze swept across me.

I felt like a 19th century British explorer making my way to an archaeological dig or something. I could just imagine having to loosen my belted coat and wipe the sweat just below my pith helmet. My khaki pants were all a jumble and sticking to my legs, and my mustache was way too much facial hair for the heat.

“Come!” I heard amidst the daydream. Raghavendra was paying the man the agreed upon 120 rupees ($2.40) for our half-hour ride. We were parked in front of a gigantic white building sporting impressive front gates, mustached guards, and groves of palm trees. The sign on top said Le Meridien Hotel. ‘Yup, that’s the one,” I thought to myself. Raghavendra and I strolled around the asphalt cul-de-sac as our rickshaw melded into the line of traffic, not having bothered to look both ways before diving in. We made our way up the broad marble steps and then were greeted with a hello and a smile from an Indian guard with a large, 19th century British mustache dressed in a green uniform, boots, and a pith helmet…coincidence? I think not. As the guard opened the door, I just looked up and gazed. “Damnit, I’m such a tourist,” I thought in disgust. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the dome ceiling and star-shaped skylights. My gaze shifted downward and I observed a large foyer with Indian carpets, fine wooden furniture, and glass tables, servants bustling to and fro. It was just too much.

We approached the front desk and asked for the managing director. The kind clerk pointed in a direction and told us to ascend the stairs. “One step at a time,” I thought in a practiced manner. “Smile and say thank you, you dope,” I chided myself.

“Thank you,” I said with a large grin on my face.

Raghavendra and I made our way up the stairs and then approached a door labeled “Managing Director.” We walked in. There was a large leather sofa and a glass stand with six different newspapers on it. I could see workers behind a glass wall in front of me typing away on their computers. A man came out and asked us if we’d like coffee, tea, or water. “Water!” I bursted out. I hadn’t had any water since dinner on my Lufthansa flight the night before. I calmly gulped the water down and reached for a copy of The Hindu, India’s National Newspaper, established 1878. The front was slathered with IT news. I got through about half an article, when the door to the managing director’s office opened and a thin Indian man with gold-rimmed specs emerged. He was well mannered and spoke better English than I was used to hearing. A copy of my resume and a cover letter that I’d written a year ago lay across his desk. “Good old Arvind!,” I thought to myself.

The man said, “so, tell me about your project, it sounds very interesting.” So I did. Then he said, “I hear you’re a musician.” He had certainly read my resume and maybe talked to Arvind. I told him that, yes I was a singer and I was really excited to visit with the Indian culture. I also offered up that I might sign up for Indian dance classes, trying to get a laugh or a smile out of him. It worked. We talked at ease about some Chennai music festivals and then I asked him about himself. He deferred back to me, spurring conversation for a moment longer. Then he said, “well, we have three restaurants, one is continental fare, one Indian fine dining, and one a seafood restaurant. Which one would you like?”

“Jackpot!” I thought. Raghavendra and I shared a glance. I didn’t even hesitate…”The Indian fine dining,” I said assuredly.

“Good,” he said. And then he typed some number into the phone and said something in Hindi. Two minutes later, the manager of the restaurants and the head chef of the Indian restaurant were there shaking my hand in greeting. In short, they told me that I could come and go as I please and they’re huge staff would be happy to have me and answer my questions. Then they asked how long I was staying.

“One month and fifteen days,” I told them, which was fine with them I suppose because they just nodded. All three of the men handed me their business cards and wrote down their personal cell numbers. They each said that if I need anything to give them a call. I could start when I wanted.

My first day in India

November 23, 2009; 8 pm:

The morning of November 21 at 9:30, I awoke to a knock at the door. I was greeted with a smaller guy who looked at me and said, “brefa,” which I took to mean breakfast. Just to make sure, he made the motion of eating. I told him I’d be right down…in so many charades. I quickly slapped on a pair of jeans and bustled down the narrow stairway to the dining room. There was a single table with about 6 place settings. There were two men sitting at the table, one very large and jolly looking with a pair of rectangular specs sitting on his face, the second one a smaller guy wearing a red and black nylon jersey. One of the servers came up to me and said, “omele?” I of course agreed to that, because it sounded a lot like the familiar English word ‘omelette.’ He brought me out a delicious milky and sugary coffee, no doubt the famous Chennai filtered coffee that I’d read about, followed by a plate sized omelette with onions and jalapenos in it with 5 pieces of white toast on the side. Do they think I’m American or something? Haha. I gladly accepted and got to work quickly, but soon noticed that they were bringing Indian food to the other men across the table, so I put on my “I’m really curious” look and pointed at what they had. The server’s charades indicated that he understood that I wanted some of the Indian food also, which he quickly produced. The food consisted of a bowl of lentil soup made with red chillies, parsley, basil, anise, and some other spices, rice pancakes (dosas), and some other paste that was just as spicy as everything else I was eating that morning. I found out later that all of that food cost me only 50 cents…I was shocked!

Seeing the men across the table, I did what I do in every other situation where there are people, I started a conversation in English hoping that the others speak English. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could understand the large gentleman quite well. I asked them how long they were staying, and the big guy said he’d been here for 3 years and probably would be staying a bit longer. The smaller guy also was there for an extended stay. Next question: What do you do? The big guy, whose name I learned was Ivan, said that he was a regional manager for a company named TCS, which is a software development company partnered with Cisco sytems in the U.S.. Yet another sign of the Indian IT and technology boom. He’s a business and marketing guy. The other guy, whose name is Patma, works for Tata motors. Tata basically deals with everything from salt to motors. The fact of the matter is that Ivan and I are now really good friends based on that first conversation. We talked all about the stock markets, Indian companies, market cap, blah blah, finance, blah. We make a good pair. After our conversation, I hurried back up the stairs to my room, because I knew that Raghavendra, my contact in Chennai, would be back for me.

It was my first rickshaw ride and I was pumped! Raghavendra, my contact in Chennai, had flagged down one of these motorized yellow buggys with three golf cart wheels, bike handlebars for steering, and a very rickety bench in the back. He had agreed on a price of 120 rupees. Barely had my butt hit the vinyl bench before the barefooted driver pulled an emergency brake looking lever in the floor, sparking a throaty dirt-bike noise from the engine of the vehicle. We were off! First of all, I’m just completely confused by this driving on the left hand side of the road thing, but if that’s not enough, then the people crossing four lanes of traffic, sudden stops, impetuous u-turns, and honking certainly pushed my mind into boggledom. I looked at my knuckles, the capillary action turning them white as I clenched the thin, rusted bar in front of me. I didn’t loose my grip.

I eyed the now sun-bathed and bustling shops on the street, most of them in Hindi, but some throwing in some English words. Most of the signs are dingy pixilated with a worn, pastel look to them. There were people lying, sitting, kneeling, standing, etc., etc.. Some were cooking dosas on their wooden carts with bike wheels, others lentil soup (dal) with chapatti (a bread). There was no sign of hygiene amongst the dirt and trash, but they didn’t seem to care. There were vendors of every kind—electronics, baked goods, lime sodas, freshly pressed sugarcane drinks, a neon sign advertising insurance every now and again. The heat and the humidity seemed to temper as the breeze swept across me.

I felt like a 19th century British explorer making my way to an archaeological dig or something. I could just imagine having to loosen my belted coat and wipe the sweat just below my pith helmet. My khaki pants were all a jumble and sticking to my legs, and my mustache was way too much facial hair for the heat.

“Come!” I heard amidst the daydream. Raghavendra was paying the man the agreed upon 120 rupees ($2.40) for our half-hour ride. We were parked in front of a gigantic white building sporting impressive front gates, mustached guards, and groves of palm trees. The sign on top said Le Meridien Hotel. ‘Yup, that’s the one,” I thought to myself. Raghavendra and I strolled around the asphalt cul-de-sac as our rickshaw melded into the line of traffic, not having bothered to look both ways before diving in. We made our way up the broad marble steps and then were greeted with a hello and a smile from an Indian guard with a large, 19th century British mustache dressed in a green uniform, boots, and a pith helmet…coincidence? I think not. As the guard opened the door, I just looked up and gazed. “Damnit, I’m such a tourist,” I thought in disgust. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the dome ceiling and star-shaped skylights. My gaze shifted downward and I observed a large foyer with Indian carpets, fine wooden furniture, and glass tables, servants bustling to and fro. It was just too much.

We approached the front desk and asked for the managing director. The kind clerk pointed in a direction and told us to ascend the stairs. “One step at a time,” I thought in a practiced manner. “Smile and say thank you, you dope,” I chided myself.

“Thank you,” I said with a large grin on my face.

Raghavendra and I made our way up the stairs and then approached a door labeled “Managing Director.” We walked in. There was a large leather sofa and a glass stand with six different newspapers on it. I could see workers behind a glass wall in front of me typing away on their computers. A man came out and asked us if we’d like coffee, tea, or water. “Water!” I bursted out. I hadn’t had any water since dinner on my Lufthansa flight the night before. I calmly gulped the water down and reached for a copy of The Hindu, India’s National Newspaper, established 1878. The front was slathered with IT news. I got through about half an article, when the door to the managing director’s office opened and a thin Indian man with gold-rimmed specs emerged. He was well mannered and spoke better English than I was used to hearing. A copy of my resume and a cover letter that I’d written a year ago lay across his desk. “Good old Arvind!,” I thought to myself.

The man said, “so, tell me about your project, it sounds very interesting.” So I did. Then he said, “I hear you’re a musician.” He had certainly read my resume and maybe talked to Arvind. I told him that, yes I was a singer and I was really excited to visit with the Indian culture. I also offered up that I might sign up for Indian dance classes, trying to get a laugh or a smile out of him. It worked. We talked at ease about some Chennai music festivals and then I asked him about himself. He deferred back to me, spurring conversation for a moment longer. Then he said, “well, we have three restaurants, one is continental fare, one Indian fine dining, and one a seafood restaurant. Which one would you like?”

“Jackpot!” I thought. Raghavendra and I shared a glance. I didn’t even hesitate…”The Indian fine dining,” I said assuredly.

“Good,” he said. And then he typed some number into the phone and said something in Hindi. Two minutes later, the manager of the restaurants and the head chef of the Indian restaurant were there shaking my hand in greeting. In short, they told me that I could come and go as I please and they’re huge staff would be happy to have me and answer my questions. Then they asked how long I was staying.

“One month and fifteen days,” I told them, which was fine with them I suppose because they just nodded. All three of the men handed me their business cards and wrote down their personal cell numbers. They each said that if I need anything to give them a call. I could start when I wanted.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Breaking down curry powders

As you may know, curry powders are easily available at almost any supermarket given the piqued interest in Indian cuisine, but I bet you can't guess what the difference is between these curry powders and the "curry powders" used in traditional Indian cookery. So let's take a look.

Most curry powders that you buy at the store come with a blend of spices that go something like this: dried coriander seeds, red chillies, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamoms, cloves, black pepper, cumin seeds and poppy seeds (sometimes fenugreek and garlic). This is all well and good and it certainly includes many of the spices that are used in Indian cuisine; however, it just doesn't do it justice. First of all, these powders can only be kept on a shelf for a matter of weeks before they start to lose their piquancy. Second, curry powder producers tend to use cheap spices in order to lower the price of production, which most western users won't be able to tell, because they've never been to India or had true Indian cuisine. Third, they completely omit or use very little nutmeg and mace due to their high costs. These spices are pivotal to bringing out flavors.

If you really want to go traditional, then poppy would not even be used. This spice was first used in the mid-1800s when the British mandated the growing of poppy fields in the Northeastern state of Bengal in order to participate in highly-profitable trade with the western world and China. As a result of this mandate, the fields that traditionally grew the fruits and veggies for the Bengali cuisine were replaced by poppy plants. With so much of it being produced, the people of Bengal eventually found a way to use it in food. Thus, this spice has only existed in the cuisine for about 150 years.

So, you might ask, what are the traditional spices used in an Indian "curry powder." To that I would say, it's not easy, because the cuisine of India varies far and wide, just as the culture and language do. But here are some standards:



******Garam Masala (A North Indian curry mixture)
This mixture consists of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black cumin seeds, nutmeg and mace. Depending on your specific taste preferences, you can change the proportions.

Start by adding equal parts cloves and black cumin seeds. Then, add equal parts cinnamon and cardamom seeds (the little black ones inside the cardamom shell), each of them being 3x as much as the cloves and black cumin seeds (for instance 1/4 ounce cloves and black cumin seeds would mean you need to add 3/4 ounce cinnamon and cardamom). Next, add a good pinch of nutmeg and mace. Grind all of them in with a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder, pass through a fine sieve and then store in an airtight container. Use within a couple of weeks for best taste.





*****Variation on Garam Masala used by Kashmiri chefs
(Kashmir is the northernmost state in India)

This mixture includes black cumin seeds, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, mace, black pepper, and nutmeg.

Add equal parts black cumin seeds, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper. Then, add an amount of cardamom that is 4x as much as you used for the first spices listed. Last, add 1/2 as much mace and nutmeg as you used for the first spices listed. Grind, sieve, and store.

*****Madras Rasam or sambhar powder (from Chennai, formerly called Madras)

This mixture is from down south. It includes split black beans (a type of lentil/bean), white cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black pepper, and fenugreek seeds.

This one is a bit different, as you have to fry each of the ingredients separately before mixing, grinding, and storing.

Add equal parts split black beans, white cumin seeds, and coriander seeds. Then, add 1/2 as much black pepper as you used for the first spices listed. Last, add 1/4 as much fenugreek seeds as you used for the first spices listed. Grind and store.

**************************************************

These recipes are quick fixes for producing the flavors that you will find in Indian cuisine. Once you have mastered (which I haven't yet, by the way) the art of adding spices individually to a dish, then you can perfect your recipes by bringing out and suppressing certain tastes.

Indian Cookery

I have started my internship at Le Meridien Hotel in Chennai, India and I've purchased several books on Indian Cuisine, so we're going to begin learning Indian cuisine from this point forward!

First Night in India

As my plane skidded to a stop on the runway, I took the chance to glance back through the cabin. It’s interesting being the minority. Everyone has a look on their face like, “What the hell are you doing here?” When the plane attendants bid me farewell in German, I couldn’t help thinking, “Oh boy, now I’m not just one, but two parts removed from America…The US seems a long way off.”

When you enter a really foreign place, you immediately notice the smallest things…the fact that no one has cleaned the glass on the doors for a long time, the brown dinginess that inhabits corners and crevices, the lack of décor, or a haphazardly placed Buddha in the corner of a surgically lit hallway.

I had been to Germany in the last 10 days, an “infected” area, so I was greeted by a finger ushering me toward a group of masked government workers eager to take my little green form that I had diligently filled out on the plane. They didn’t even check me. I could have just lied about having the flu and they wouldn’t have known. One success!

As I walked away from the masked crusaders, I had the familiar feel of purpose come over me as I walked to the passport counter. But I was shot down! The man looked at my little white paper and said in a very Indian accent, head bobbing from side to side, “you didn’t fill everything out; where are you staying?” I explained that I didn’t know where I was staying and that all I knew is that I was going to meet someone outside the glass doors, hopefully gripping a paper with these 8 letters: “ETHAN WOODS.” That wasn’t doing it for him, though, so he told me to go use the free telephone to make a call and pointed in a seemingly arbitrary direction. His directional led me to a long counter against a wall with a single telephone sitting atop it. Above it was a laminated piece of white paper that said “free telephone.” I think I made that sign in third grade.

As I picked up the receiver, I had another familiar feeling come over me…failure. I realized that no sound was being emitted from the telephone speaker. “It’s a different country with new rules and laws,” I thought to myself. “Perhaps there is no dial tone here,” came the follow up. So, I plowed ahead anyways laying a heavy finger on each successive button, the feeling of purpose returning to fight against inevitable failure. One…two…three…four…no sound…five…failure.

“EATAN!,” a voice came from behind. “God, is that you,” I thought—no one knows my name in this country. I did an about face and was greeted with a smile. I recognized the man from the plane, but had not talked to him at all. He was wearing a white winter cap, hardly appropriate for the hot, humid conditions in India. After realizing that my face must be clenched with the lines of deep thought forming above my brow, I said hello. He then explained to me that he had heard me talking to the flight attendant on the plane about my trip around the world and my “shooting in the dark” approach to India. He said that he had talked to the man at the passport counter and told him I was staying with him. I was confused and a little taken aback at his openness and forwardness, but I readily handed over my pen to let him write in his address on my form. If it got me past step 1, I knew I could handle steps 2, 3, 4, and 5. Success two!

It turns out that the guy is a software engineer and was recently working for Ferrari in Italy. He said he was returning home to surprise his wife, whom he’d recently married. Apparently she wanted him back in Chennai with her, but he had a year contract in Italy. I guess he had figured out a way to break it and was quite excited to surprise his wife.

I proceeded to the conveyor belt full of bags and boxes, all eagerly waiting to be snatched up by their owners. So I looked, and I waited, and I waited, and I waited. The thing about having the last name Woods is that you learn what patience is after having been called last in anything that was ever alphabetized, However, my patience was wearing thin, especially because I knew that my new friend was waiting behind me checking his cell phone for lack of a better thing to do. I looked down at the scratch marks on the steel belt and decided that my bags were in fact going to come…and that they did. Success three!

When you walk past a line of frantically waving Indians waiting to receive their family members, partners, and business associates, you kind of feel like a piece of meat on display. It’s like you’re the fish at the outdoor market that everyone keeps asking about, because you look different and out of place. Or maybe it’s just because you’re twice the size of everyone else around you and you’re naturally the landmark for watching the flow of traffic…who knows? All I know is that straight ahead, I found what I was looking for: a white piece of paper with “ETHEN WOODS” written on it…close enough. Success four!

The man who greeted me is called Raghavendra and he is the business associate of Arvind Nayak, who helped to arrange my stay in India. Raghavendra is one of 150 employees in Arvind’s freight shipping business (www.nayakaviation.com) and runs the operations in Chennai, one of the seven offices in India (there are two more in Hong Kong and Singapore). Arvind and I have yet to meet, but I know that he is a kind and caring man who has decided to help a wayward traveler who just so happened to graduate Dolgeville High School about 35 years after he did (as an exchange student). He has graciously set up places for me to stay in Chennai, Bangalore, Cochin and New Delhi and found me very wonderful places to learn about the cuisine, the first being a five-star hotel in downtown Chennai. You’ll learn more about him, as will I.

Raghavendra said some words to me in English, I thought, but it was very difficult to make it out through the Indian accent, so I just followed. The sidewalk was a veritable hotel of homeless people stretched out on pieces of cloth or just face on bare cement, some engaged in conversation and some with just a vacant, lifeless expression. I pressed on. Analyzing the flow of traffic, I saw Land Rovers, Tatas, tiny cars, and auto rickshaws wildly competing for the next chance to push forward. I would liken it to a dangerous game of tetris, where everyone was trying to fill the next spot…no blinkers, just honking. I was very confused in my new surroundings, and I had just spent 16 hours in transit starting at 4 a.m. in Vienna and ending at midnight in Chennai, India. My brain was so shot up with holes that it could have been a stop sign in a redneck village. But I followed Raghavendra’s motions, climbing into a tiny car, the driver positioned on the front right. Air conditioning…phew! I was so glad to be out of the oppressive heat and humidity that first struck me as wading through a pot of luke warm hot dog water, when you add the smell. The traffic was moving slower than molasses and the road looked like a war zone. And, if I thought Turkey had chaotic traffic, you should see India! Hit the accelerator hard and hit the breaks fast, honk when not spoken to, and hold on for dear life! Those are the rules of the road in India.

I looked over to analyze my only friend in the world, Raghavendra, as the car windows began to condense with water droplets jealous of the cold on the car interior. I said the only thing I knew to say, “Thank you!”

He smiled and said, “no thanks, no thanks.” That’s when I remembered what I had heard about Indian hospitality. Always a smile and always a helping hand.

The car ride was long and the traffic was unbearable, even at 1 a.m., but I took the chance to acquaint myself with the man sitting beside me as well as his Indian accent. I also surveyed the surroundings through the mist on the windows. From what I could tell, it was India…I wasn’t dreaming. The streets were dirty, the curbsides were high to battle against flooding and lack of drainage, the people were everywhere in the streets and, to reiterate, it looked like a garbage truck with it’s back hatch open had dispersed its garbage all over the road.

As we pulled onto my corner, as I now know it, the road was a puddle of stagnant water and garbage from the recent monsoon rains and flooding. My white blood cells recoiled with horror, the malaria pills in my bags just begging to be swallowed. We rounded the next corner and pulled up next to what looked like a house. Raghavendra said, “come, this is the guesthouse.” I obediently followed.

He rang the bell on the front door and a taller Indian looking guy dressed in jeans and a button up shirt answered the door, feet bare. Raghevendra and the young man exchanged some words, and then the young man flashed a smile and bobbled his head a little from side to side and ushered us in. He led us up a narrow staircase decorated with some carpet and Indian decorations, then opened the door on the right. “This is my home for a while,” I thought to myself. Here goes nothing. I stepped in and the young man flicked a couple switches, causing a fan to start whirring above my head and a fluorescent tube to lazily spring to life. The fluorescent glow revealed a large room with white granite floors, two standard looking beds, a nightstand, an armoire, a brown wardrobe, and a small table with a tv atop. There were two doors on the other side of the room. To my surprise, I heard the familiar sound of an air conditioner rumbling to life. I felt like I’d just won the lottery! It all looked pretty normal, I thought. There were towels, blankets and sheets neatly folded at the bottom of each bed with a small bar of soap topping the neat stack. The clock in the upper right hand side of the room seemed to say that Indians were not one of those timeless cultures that only meet based on positions of the sun in the sky (that was a joke…I knew that). The decorations and curtains were pretty standard looking. I walked across the room and opened door one, after having slid the large silver deadbolt to the “heel boy!” position. It was a balcony with a view of the neighboring building, a staircase extending out of sight above. I closed the door. That only left one thing: the other door. I eased it open to reveal a white tiled bathroom. There was a sink and mirror directly in front of me and some faucets to my side protruding from the walls. I looked down to see a couple of dingy buckets, one that was very large and the other dangling from the side of it, a handle facilitating its grasp. I thought to myself, “well, you can’t have everything.” Little did I know that there was actually a shower above my head, I just didn’t notice it because my gaze was fixed on the buckets and faucets below. I really thought I was going to be sponge bathing for a while. I noticed a drain in the corner on the completely level bathroom floor, which no doubt was supposed to drain the flooded post-shower bathroom floor. And then I saw it…the vestige of western civilization that I thought would totally vanish…a porcelain throne!! Success five!!!

As I sit here at almost 4:30 in the morning, I realize two things: one is that my throat is really dry and I don’t dare drink the water, and the other is that this is going to be an awesome experience!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

New Location in India

India

Population: 1.2 billion
Capital: New Delhi
Number of States: 23
Current State: Tamil Nadu
Current City: Chennai
Population Chennai: 4.5 million
Population Bristol Fellows in Chennai: 1






In the pictures on the left hand side of the page, you can see where exactly I am staying until January 5. The pictures zoom in to my exact location at the Guest Inn located at:

No. 1, 3rd Street, Habibullah Road,
T. Nagar, Chennai - 600 017
Telephone number (office):
+91 44 28341691
Telephone number (res):
+91 44 2834 1272

I also have my own cell phone number which I acquired today. It is:
+91 9789075200

If you want to call me from Skype, it will cost you about 10 cents a minute.


The 'A' is my location within the city.
















To give you more information, I will be working at the Le Meridien Hotel (I know the 'Le' and 'the' are redundant, but not everyone speaks a romance language). It is a five star hotel and it would remind you of something straight out of a movie where a handsome looking guy arrives in a cream colored suit at an exotic location and checks into a hotel that's the size of the Oklahoma Panhandle and has servant's bustling everywhere, opening doors and such. Here is the website for the hotel: Le Meridien Hotel, Chennai. The image below shows my guest house as a red 'A' and the hotel as a purple blob. The hotel has three restaurants: one with international cuisine, one with Indian fine dining, and one with seafood. Can you guess which one I chose to work at?























As far as Chennai goes, I can tell you more as we go along with wacky updates, but all I know about it now are a few juicy tidbits that I have gathered here and there. This wikipedia page is also helpful: Chennai, India. Here's what I can tell you...Chennai is quite pungent, lacks the English language (what ever happened to the effects of British colonialism...just kidding, that's insensitive), and produces a lot of cars. In fact, there is a Ford and Hyundai factory here as well as parts manufacturers for names such as BMW and Mercedes. It produces 60% of India's auto exports and is called the detroit of South Asia...Go GM! (too soon?) The food here, as far as my tongue can discern, is very spicy, but luckily I frequented enough hot currywurst stands in Germany to accustom my stomach to the heat. I'm actually getting used to the joint crying/feeding sessions after my first 24 hours here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bolognese Sauce ala Ethan

Here is a recipe that I learned in Turkey and then perfected in Italy. It's a very delicious
Bolognese sauce with some of my own touches. I never work with measuring cups, so you'll have to bear with me on the measurements.

Ingredients:
1 1/2 lbs. ground beef or meat of choice
1 can of broth to match meat
3/4 stick of butter
1/4 cup olive oil
5 cloves garlic
1 red onion and 1 yellow onion (chopped)
1 green pepper and 1/2 green chili pepper (chopped)
6 capers and a splash of caper juice
6-8 vine ripened tomatoes (or equivalent in beefsteak tomatoes)
2 stalks celery
1 carrot
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup whole milk
1 handful grated Parmesan cheese
oregano
basil
1/2 bouquet parsley (some dill optional)
allspice
nutmeg
pepper/salt

1) Chop all the vegetables to approximately the same size. Crush the tomatoes after having chopped them.
2) Over medium heat, add butter, oil, onions and garlic and brown for 1-2 minutes.
3) Next, add the peppers, carrots, celery, pepper, salt, a good amount of oregano, and an amount of basil that is less than the oregano you added and let simmer for 6 minutes.
4) One by one, add the red wine and the milk, letting each evaporate off.
5) Add the stock, Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, nutmeg (to taste), allspice (to taste), capers and caper juice, and let simmer over low heat for 1-2 hours. You should not need to add very much nutmeg and allspice (each less than a teaspoon).
6) Add the parsley and dill directly before serving and serve with fresh Parmesan cheese

*For best results, let the sauce sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours. This is pretty much the rule with any Italian sauces you might make. This recipe seems to be a hit everywhere I make it. You know when people go for their third plate.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Toulouse, France

Let me describe Toulouse for you as best I can. I am sitting at an internet café right now, the remnants of a croissant scattered across the table, an empty coffee cup begging for a refill. To my front is a steady stream of traffic, the sound of heels clicking upon the cobblestone street. The people here are more fashionable, especially when it comes to the eyeglasses that they wear. The fall fashions are out.

The most persistent color in this city is red. The stone that carpets the city is a muted gray/red, the buildings are a brighter, brick red (probably because they are brick). Everywhere I look, there are iron-wrought railings, especially those that border the old balconies above. My friend, Sara Feuerstein, calls it charming, and she’s been here in France for two years. I’ve decided that this is the most encompassing word to describe the places that I’ve traveled in the last few months. There certainly is not a lack of fountains or churches. It seems that everywhere you go, there is an angel, a lamb, or a mythological creature spitting a steady stream of water into an oxidized bronze basin or stone bowl. Perhaps the most interesting to me at this point, though, are the churches. After reading “Pillars of the Earth,” by Ken Follett, I can’t help but think of the history behind these structures that took sometimes centuries to erect. It’s so interesting to me to think that a man would devote his entire existence to building one church. Day in and day out, he would breath stone dust trying to leave a legacy in a bleak time (the Middle Ages). It’s no wonder that there is so much to marvel at when you consider that a small army of men’s collective life creativity went into creating the structure before you.

As you raise your eyes away from ground level, you could very well be in another century, except for the few television antennae that are scattered on the rooftops. If you really want to find a place in this city where you’re in a different century, it can be found. More than once have I found myself winding through a back alley, most times at sunset, sidelined by small, squat doors whose purpose are not apparent to me. The stone facades and the shuttered windows do not look as though they’ve been tended to in centuries, the cobbles below certainly showing their age. If you listen closely, you hear the faint sounds of…nothing. Exactly how it used to be. If ever I’ve felt like I’m living a scene from Les Miserables, it was here. Where the candle snuffer is, I don’t know.

People bike everywhere, although not quite as smoothly as on a blacktopped surface. You can see the jowls of older people shaking as they ride about on the brick and cobbles. Little baskets adorn the bikes, leeks and baguettes emerging from their wickered confines. You can see the bikes parked along the narrow streets, the owner sipping on a café au lait in a cafe or ordering a baguette from the bakery. Everyone nibbles the end of their baguette as they walk.

It is sunny right now, the temperature perfect. I’m sure the milling about is accentuated by these conditions. Fall is certainly one of the best times to people watch, I think.

The shops in Toulouse are small. There are lot’s of bakeries and lots of cafes, but there are also specialty food shops like the bustling Italian one by Carmes. There are tea shops, organic stores, little clown stores (odd, I know), bars, butchers, the list goes on, the charm never ceasing to be apparent. Even the one Mcdonalds in town is classy. The inside has classy dim lights extending tableward from the ceiling. In lieu of French fries, you can get potatoes, which are seasoned and lovely. As you can tell, I’ve tried the Mcdonalds, but only because I heard the food is a much higher quality. I had to see and it’s true. They don’t allow crap into these Mcdonalds.

If you head to the riverside, you will find magnificent brick bridges adorned with antique iron-wrought lamps. At sunset, you can see a perfect reflection of the bridge on the mirror-like water. The underside of the bridges rise from the water in brick arches that are lit up different colors at night. My night runs through this city could possibly be as exhilarating as those through the streets of Istanbul.

Although not as prolific here as in Germany, the doner kebab stands are plenty. The Turkish influence pervades Europe. If only they knew of the other kebabs that Turkey offers. Someone needs to introduce Adana and Iskender kebabs over here.

I can’t feed you all the good without the bad, though. That’s disillusionment. Very often will I find myself stepping over a fresh stream of liquid running from the side of a building. A Frenchman has urinated here. It’s pretty common that people pee in the streets, whether day or night, it doesn’t matter. There really aren’t any public restrooms and this could be one of the reasons for the leaky Frenchman, but I think it’s just something that’s ingrained in the culture. Another observable thing here is the use of drugs. The bridge down the street from me serves as a quiet place for shooting up. If you come at the right time you can see the man with the belt wrapped around his arm…I’ll go no further. Apparently the cops don’t crack down as much here as in the U.S.. There are also homeless people everywhere. On a 10 minute walk, expect to see 5 people. The difference is that these homeless people look a little more classy. Damnit France! Why so classy?

Another interesting phenomenon is that many young people where hoodies and shirts donning emblazoned with “Franklin and Marshall,” which is a little boutique store downtown. However, they have no idea that this is actually a little college in Pennsylvania. Apparently someone took that name, brought it here, and then marketed it as a cool boutique brand. Why Franklin and not Hamilton? Maybe I’ll start a boutique store with Hamilton hoodies.

Speaking of school pride, there is none here. The socialized educational system definitely does not produce individuals who love their school or have a fun time learning. I visited the local university and it is completely utilitarian and bleak. The only upside is that you can get a master’s degree for about 500 Euro. It’s a piece of shit, though…so I’ve heard. Whereas I look back on my college days fondly, these French students will not. Sara and I have had numerous conversations that center around how much we love Hamilton College. The stories are endless.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Gayest cheese in France



Above is a slide show of some of the sights in southern France. You will see shots of Toulouse, St. Affrique, Roquefort, and Millau.

Here is an interesting passage about the role of the cheese workers in the Roquefort caves from the English-translated tour sheet:

"Using a special probe, they scoop out minute samples of cheese from a selection of loaves chosen randomly from each fermenting room. The ease or difficulty with which the probe enters the cheese gives them an idea of the texture of the paste. On removing the probe the master-ripener examines the distribution of the internal cavities and the bluing, sometimes touches the cheese to check its suppleness, and finally smells it to inhale its aroma. The cheese is not tasted at the stage and the probe is replaced."

That is all for now.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

October 10, 2009 (Hamburg)

I am on another train from Hamburg to Cologne at the moment. Trains seem to be the only place that I can find time to type.

I’ve found that touring so quickly is a very stressful life. There is a lot of waiting and a lot of unknowns. But, of course, this was the part I knew would exist. It is also very difficult to learn about a place in a few days. There is a lot of time that needs to go into meeting and greeting with people and getting to know them. There is also a lot of time that is spent lost, or as I like to think of it, misguided sightseeing. All of this makes it hard to get to the core of study and research, as you might imagine, but I think for right now, the memories that I am amassing as I hop all over Europe are not to be regretted or even curtailed in favor of some deep study. Books are always available and I am quite certain that seeing each place and experiencing the food, sight, sounds, and smells is much more important at the moment. On a very excited note, I would like to report that I am the proud new owner of an Amazon Kindle, which was a birthday/Christmas present from my family. I can now carry limitless books with me without the fear of a sore lower back or steep bill at airport weigh-ins. Ok, it’s not limitless, but I can store 1500 books on it at only 10 ounces. I can also get my subscription to the Economist and newspapers so I can keep up with new Nobel Prize winners, among other things.



From the 6th of October until now, I have been in the house of Peter and Nicoline Krup, who were unbelievable hosts. Not only did they give me a very large space to occupy, but they also looked up all the information for every train I needed to take, and fed me breakfast, lunch, and dinner in only the most German of ways (except for the last night; we ate South American food…but hey, it’s meat right?). The first day they toured me around the city of Hamburg, showing us St. Peter’s Cathedral, which is actually just a monument now after having been destroyed in a bombing, St. Michael’s church, the Hamburg warehouses, the harbor, the opulent-looking town hall lined with Holy Roman Emperors, and all the little streets and bridges that make Hamburg…well, Hamburg. Hamburg has been and continues to be one of the largest shipping ports in the world and boasts the largest network of harbor warehouses anywhere. It also has more bridges than Venice. The city is very charming with its stone streets, its chic clothing stores, its shoe boutiques, its post-war reconstructions, its miniature train museums, and its large squares lined with white arcades. I found it to be more charming than Berlin, which may or may not be fair considering that Berlin is a sprawling city and I did not get to see it all. The other part that really appealed to me is that it is a bustling, growing city. If you take a ride over to Hafencity on the waterfront, you will see a modern architects playground. Glass and cement abound and uneven lines are the norm in this architectural microcosm. Seeing all the fresh building with the busy harbor as a backdrop gave me the feeling of being in an industrial age American city…a concept I’ve always learned about, but seldom seen. Of course, it is a German town, so perhaps we’ll call it my ideal of an industrial age German city, although I did not learn much about that in school.

I had four nights available to me in Hamburg, which left ample time for tasting some of the Hamburg specialties. We’ll start with the side dishes. It may not come as a surprise to some of you, but Germans love potatoes and cabbage. They eat their potatoes boiled, mashed, baked, fried (in all different shapes), au gratin, twice baked, with curry, with mayo, in a salad…the list goes on. They also eat lots of different cabbages with as much diversity of cooking techniques as with potatoes. My particular favorites are Rotkohl, which is a red cabbage cooked in a vinegar base, and just plain old sauerkraut, which can’t be beat on a bratwurst. They also like their fish up north. I tried some different fried fishes with potatoes and cabbage, a dish of pureed potatoes, fish, cabbage, beets, corned beef, and some tasty almond-trout.

In Germany, meat is king, and that holds for the city of Hamburg. One night I visited a restaurant that had the feel of a raucous German hunting lodge, without the raucousness. I sat with Peter and Nicoline in a raised booth with a stuffed marten directly above me, a wild boar to my front, a stuffed falcon following, and then other various wild things adorning the walls opposite. Unbeknownst to me, everyone else had ordered the smaller platters (I thought for sure that Peter had ordered the large one). I, however, ordered the large Hunter’s platter. After about 5 minutes or so, I was delivered a large pewter-looking tray about the size of my left-leg, with potato croquettes (x8), a large helping of red cabbage, a healthy serving of sautéed mushrooms, two types of venison, wild baby boar and a saucer of gravy--my heart stopped in anticipation. Seeing all this, I did only what I know best. I took a long swig of my Hefeweizen (beer) and then inhaled the carnivorous man platter. It turns out that I have taken my shrunken Turkish belly and turned it into a voracious German endless pit. I’m proud to say that I have gained back about 7 lbs. since Turkey. My clothes fit a little better now.

On a different night, the Krups took Lauren and I to a restaurant that used to be a horse-changing pub (since the 1500s, I think). Men would bring their horses in through the large, dark-brown doors, and then seek refreshment in a fire-heated room. Here, I ordered a wild duck with cranberries, sliced pear, gravy, and red cabbage. Peter had an equally delicious looking duck in front of him that was a little bigger than mine as a result of it being farmed. Nicoline had some very delicious goose livers which she let me try. All delicious, fatty and very filling. Beer stands no chance at getting one drunk when heaps of food are included. This is the secret of impressive German drinking I think. Just eat half a cow or pig, and then you can drink as much as you want. It’s easy!

Each morning, I awoke to a find a wonderful display of foods on the table, which I gladly devoured over some interesting, insightful and educational conversations with my two (former teacher) hosts. Our settings were a dark brown cutting board, fork and knife, a coffee cup, a juice glass, and a cloth napkin. To the top left of the cutting board was a knitted chicken sitting on top of a soft-boiled egg in an egg cup. They served us strong, black coffee (just like I like it now) apple and pear juice, fruits, 6 types of cheeses, two types of liverwurst, speck (a German bacon that is cured, not cooked), salami, assorted rolls, pumpernickel bread, black bread and two types of muesli. My favorite was the heart-stopper sandwich. This consists of a roll slathered in butter on one side, egg yolk and chopped egg white on the other, then two types of cheese in the middle with either liverwurst or speck. This has become a common breakfast for me in Germany and probably contributes to my weight gain…well that and the whole animals that I continue to consume. If I continue to work out, I hope that my weight is going to my muscles and not my belly.

Another highlight for my visit to Hamburg was the Miniature Wonderland, a museum of model trains and cities that is extremely detailed and intricate. There are hundreds of thousands of people all over the landscapes, and trains run by track across the waters and snow of Scandinavia, the mountains of Switzerland, the farm dotted landscapes of Central Europe, the red stoned Arizona landscape. They also run through multiple city streets, including those of Hamburg and Las Vegas. Everything is moving and everything is lit up. Even the model cars that navigate the city streets have lit up headlights. There are model fires that take place, there are Ferris wheels, there are roller coasters, there are live concerts, there is a running chocolate factory that produces chocolate…there are elevators, there are ski lifts, there are cement factories…there are, monasteries, monuments, and churches…the list goes on. There is no possible way to see everything, which makes this place great. You can keep on visiting and it won’t get old. The other thing is that it’s not completely innocent. It’s very obvious that adults designed this thing and were often bored when doing so. Some of the miniature people are having sex in fields, filming pornography in the high rises, or nude bathing on the beaches, but these things are not caught by the children I think. It takes the intent eyes of an adult to find such things in the exhibit.

Anyways, the museum rekindled my childhood fantasies of building and engineering things and I have decided that when I grow up, my house will be full of living model train exhibits in addition to all the secret passages. You just watch…I’ll do it.

Hamburg could not have been complete without some spice exploration, so I did that too. It is actually a wonderful city to explore for spices, because so many of them came in through this bustling port. I visited the spice museum—supposedly the only spice museum in the world—located in one of the old storehouses. It had old milling equipment, spice sorters, spice grinders, and spice packaging machines. It also had exhibits with pictures of spices in their natural environments and the processing methods of the native people. I’ll actually get to see that later in my journey, though. They had a wide array of ground spices in bowls and oils to smell and feel, but I could tell that they’d been sitting there a long time, because they had lost all their volatile oils and hardly gave off any aroma…I was disappointed with that. One of the things that I found most interesting were the different items they found in the sacks of spices that came from the East. There were lighters, toy cars, tons of tools, batteries, small dolls, etc.. Everything was very interesting, but as usual, there was no English displayed and it was a bit hard to pick up information. Story of my life, it seems.

October 2, 2009 (The Romantic Road)

I am on a train to Berlin and I just finished the Romantic road. There is no way possible to explain all the places I saw between Oktoberfest and now, but I can give you a little taste with a town called Dinkelsbuhl.

Dinkelsbuhl is a fully-functioning, walled Medieval with enough charm and lack of tourists to completely fulfill my Medieval fetish. It is exactly what you would picture a Medieval town to be: cobbled streets, an enormous Gothic cathedral, thick walls with towers, old mills, half timbered buildings, and even a little hole in the outside of the town walls labeled “Mauergeist,” or wall ghost. The lady that ran my hotel told me that it’s for the children and you can ring the old bell that’s next to the little cave to summon the ghost. I love it.

Walking through the town, the scents of wood smoke, freshly fallen leaves, and old masonry hit your nose. The occasional bakery puts off smells of buttery and fruity treats. As you look around, you notice that the walls are covered with moss, lichens, and some small plants poking out to say hello. You can easily place yourself five hundred years ago to see Teutonic nights emerging from the front of their quarters in the middle of the city. You can just see all the workmen scurrying about the street, the farmers wheeling their goods about on carts, and the masons mixing the mortar for the grand churches they’re building. Nowadays, it’s a little more modern, but still retains its charm.


The morning after my stay in the quaint Hotel Palmengarten, I decided that I was going to use the brisk weather for a jog around the city. I actually ran around the whole thing twice: once outside of the walls and once inside. It was absolutely amazing running by the two mills that the towns used to operate under special privileges granted by the king. It was amazing to run through the great gates to the city, to trod over the ivied bridges that traversed the moats and waterways and to see the mallard ducks and swans below. At one point, I looked across the moat to see a few goats grazing amongst small shrubs. I also happened upon one of the antique locks that controls the level of the moat. That thing hasn’t been replaced in a while.

I was also quite impressed with the Gothic cathedral in town. It actually smelled like a church and had real candles lit in the aisles. When you looked up, you could see the dust particles coming through the light that was filtering in through large stain-glass windows. The roof was vaulted with sharp edges and sharp ornamentation around the columns supporting its weight. And a very dark looking pulpit wound its way around one of the center-right columns to look down upon the Bavarian carved wooden pews. The artwork wasn’t special and neither were the sculptures, but I enjoyed the simplicity of it all. I’ve seen a lot of churches in the last year and this one is definitely a stand out.


Speaking of churches, I found it very odd and creepy walking about at night, because there were lit up ivied crucifixes everywhere with a naked and pierced Jesus hanging upon them. There was also a dead Jesus laid behind bars in the back of the Gothic cathedral, right next to the Last supper, and Jesus dead in Mary’s arms. I really almost wet my pants when I rounded the sharp corner to find this. If that wasn’t creepy enough, I turned the next corner to see a night watchmen walking down the street, complete with leggings, leather pants, gold-buckled leather shoes, a little hat, and a glass sided lantern to light his way. This, all without tourists. I actually felt like I was in a Medieval town. It was creepy and awesome! Oh, and on my morning jog I also saw an everyday worker carrying some carpentry equipment along the park with all the same leggings, shoes, leather pants, and hat. He looked to be about 60 years old and there’s no way he was doing that for the tourists at the crack of dawn.

September 29, 2009 (Oktoberfest)

I’m officially at Oktoberfest. I woke up this morning feeling slightly under the weather, as did my Irish roommates in the Wombat Hostel in downtown Munich. I arrived in the city yesterday at about 3 p.m. and dropped off my stuff quickly before heading over to the Theresienewiese, where the Oktoberfest grounds are. What struck me as odd was that there were military personnel everywhere stopping people and checking bags. I learned later that this was because of terrorist threats, so that means that I’m living dangerously. Plus two for man points!

Everyone here is in some sort of traditional German garb. In fact, I started seeing people in traditional garb as far down as Lake Lucerne in the Alps. In all of the little towns in Bavaria, there are stores that just sell Lederhosen and traditional garb. Some of them are multilevel and are stocked to the brim. However, the price for a man to get a full get-up is about $325-400, which is absolutely ridiculous. So, I settled for a $15 checkered green vest that I wore with jeans.

The festival itself, I’m sure, has been described by many, but the best way I can think to describe it is this: It is a drunkfest that lasts for about three weeks and about 7 million people visit Munich for it. There are a bunch of parts to it, the most famous of which are the beer tents from the different brewers around Munich. These include Hacker-Pschorr, Lowenbrau, Hofbrau, and those are all I can think of right now. They basically all taste the same, especially after the first liter or two. There are also scads of big and little stands selling all sorts of German specialties. These include all sorts of fish sandwiches, pork legs, oxen burgers, pastries galore, toasted nuts, goulashes, liver everything, roasted ducks, roasted chickens, and fish on a stick (literally a whole fish on a stick that is roasted). And of course, there are more wieners than there are men in the city (it only takes one wiener, though, right?). On my first night, I sat in a tent with a bunch of Australians and made conversation over beer for about 4 hours until realizing that I hadn’t eaten dinner and I hadn’t stood up, woops. I went back to my hostel at that point. The most special part of the night was that I arm-wrestled the most archetypal Bavarian dude that you can imagine. He stood about 4 inches higher than me, had wispy blond hair laid flat against his forehead, was clean shaven with a structured jaw line, and was fully decked out in lederhosen with sleeves rolled up. The story goes like this:

After I had exited the bathroom, he said to me in this deep, thick-accented English, “where you from?” I, of course, cracked a huge grin because it just seemed too perfect. I told him New York and then he said, “You play hockey?” I said no. Then to my complete shock and much to my entertainment he said, “YOU ARE PUSSY!” That was too much for me…I laughed. He didn’t like that much and got a little angry, but was still interested in talking English. So I ended up talking with him in the most comic, macho way that you can imagine and he took a liking to me. He wanted me to come back to his table with him and his friends, but I said that I would only do it if he came back and arm-wrestled with me at my table with the Australian guys. He agreed only under the stipulation that I and the Aussies had to come back to his table if I lost…I agreed to it.

You should’ve seen the look on the guys faces when I brought this blonde behemoth back to the table. Looks of utter confusion. I told them the deal, though, and they accepted, so the Bavarian and I commenced arm-wrestling; however, he had to first put an unlit cigarette in his mouth. At first, he played the old game where you look like you’re not trying and you keep the other man’s arm dead center in the middle of the table. But, I wasn’t trying very hard, either. Finally, I let in with all my strength, at which point he put a grimace of effort on his face and started giving it all he had. I was winning for a good 30 seconds, during which I was screaming at him, “WHERE ARE YOU FROMMM?” He replied, “BAVAARRIIIIAAA!!” This happened a couple of times before he started to cheat by pulling me completely across the table and leveraging his arm with his body—beginner’s move. But it allowed him to get the upper ground. Seeing that Jurgend (that was his name, by the way—pronounced Yoor-gend) was cheating, one of the Aussies squared us up again, but I was just too tired at that point and he had gotten a chance to rest in his cheater’s position. My forearm slowly dipped to the table and I finally gave up, at which point the brute stood up in triumph and then gave me a double high-five. Haha! I guess I lost in the end, but the guy had about 40-50 lbs. on me. If only I hadn’t lost that 15 lbs. in Turkey…

The next day at Oktoberfest can be summed up with a Mastercard commercial.

3/4 roasted duck: $16
3 liters of beer: $42
2 salmon sandwiches: $12
1 oxen sandwich $8
1 bratwurst with kraut: $5
1 nut strudel: $5
1 sparkling water to end the night: $6

Smashing beer steins with men in lederhosen all night….priceless. There are some things in life that money can’t buy. For everything else there’s plasteredcard.

Ok, that’s enough about Oktoberfest. You can guess how I felt the following day with eighty pounds of roasted meat in my stomach. This all happened between the hours of 2 pm and 10 pm, by the way. Do you know how big ¾ of a roasted duck is? Ugh

September 28, 2009 (Southern Germany)


I am currently on a train from Fussen, Germany to Munich, where Oktoberfest is in full force. I am toting a spiffy little vest that I bought at a second hand store, and I have high hopes for a felt hat when I get to Munich. The problem with attending Oktoberfest is that I can’t actually take anything that I buy with me. If I could easily carry some things with me, then I would be in a pair of Lederhosen faster than Clark Kent becomes Superman.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, is wearing the traditional German garb in this area. On my way through Switzerland, I saw hordes of people returning from or going to Oktoberfest with their costumes on. It’s much easier for them to have these costumes, though, because they attend this thing yearly. There’s no way that you can buy a costume just for one year. For a full male get-up, it costs about 250 Euro, which is about $375…yikes! Thus, my 10 Euro vest will have to do. There are so many stores that sell the outfits and they must make money hand over fist.

Anyways, I’ll rewind a bit back to Switzerland, where I had the distinct pleasure of the most picturesque train ride in Europe. I rode the Golden Panoramic line that took me from Spiez, Switzerland, through Interlaken and up into Lake Lucerne. The mountains and the lakes were towering above my little train and the waters surrounding were aqua-marine blue, literally. I couldn’t believe my eyes, because I’ve never seen mountain water so blue. It looked Caribbean. But, I guess that’s the Swiss Alps for you.

When I arrived in Lucerne, I immediately noticed the prices, which were in Swiss Francs. For a cheap entrée at a restaurant, you will pay around $17-20, The only things that seem to be relatively cheap are some of the Swiss cheeses or milk. Otherwise, forget it. Despite the prices, the city was unbelievable. It’s a town of only 58,000, but it’s the most beautiful town I’ve ever been to. First of all, I’ve found that I love typical Alpine architecture, which I find to have a lot of Gothic to new-Gothic architecture mixed in (my favorite). Second, I just really enjoy the feeling of being trapped amongst towering mountains. The town, the lake, and some of the fortress like buildings made me feel like I should be entering the mines of Morya in Lord of the Rings. Even the simplest thing as a bathroom was hidden down some passageway with an arched, stained, and iron-banded door. It’s the kind of place where you expect little elven-jewelers and craftsmen to be darting about in small, green, felt pants with golden specs perched on their pointy noses. How is that for imagery? Along the banks of the river are cream colored, gray, and muted green buildings, with long brown timbers visible on the outside. The skyline is littered with pointy spires. It was certainly a contrast to the fruity colored and rounded Verona in Italy. I liked this much, much more. Also, though, the town was very modern behind it’s rustic façade. You would walk by book stores and coffee shops to find that the entire wall was an automatic sliding door…I’m talking a 15 ft. sliding door. The first time it happened to me, I got the feeling of awakening some great beast that I had previously thought inanimate. Moving on, there were watches and knives in every golden-lit display case, some with price tags of 35,000-40,000 francs (comparable in dollars). The latest fall and winter designs were on display. I can only imagine how beautiful that place is in the winter time with every surface gingerly covered with downy snow. If this all wasn’t enough to secure Lucerne as the most beautiful place in my aesthetic, there is a very long and picturesque covered bridge that spans the lake, with a rounded, medieval-looking stone building jutting out of the water off to the side. The bridge was painted with all sorts of war scenes and fairy tales at the peak of the roof…about every 10 ft. or so.

In Lucerne, I stayed at a Korean hostel named “Twins Minbok,” which was very interesting and cheap…that’s why I picked it. It was located in a very modern building with an ice-rink and dance studios below, and consisted of a male dorm, a female dorm, and a large central area with computers, a kitchen and a bunch of tables. Here, I got to eat fried rice and an egg for breakfast, take off my shoes and put on the house sandals when I walked in, and try Korean whiskey (offered to me by a group of Korean guys who didn’t speak English).

The easiest and cheapest way for me to eat in Lucerne was to make curry. So, my stay in Lucerne was both Alpine and Asian…interesting.

I also visited the Rosengart gallery while in Lucerne, which housed a bunch of Picasso’s works, many of them his earlier ones. Before visiting, I didn’t know anything about Picasso, but I left with a good knowledge of his life and his contributions, and I also think that I kind of like him, despite my aversion to modern art. What I especially liked about this museum is that they had a huge display of Picasso in photographs at different points in his life, most of them candid. I learned about him and his family, which really helped to solidify Picasso in my mind. More museums should do this.

One of the most memorable experiences from my stay in Lucerne was sitting by the waterside at this medieval looking restaurant sipping a very fruity Riesling and eating battered and fried apples (that sounds pretentious, I know, but believe me, I have no idea what the hell I’m doing when I order a wine). There were mallard ducks and swans swimming to my left and I had a clear view of the opposite shoreline and the covered bridge. All of a sudden, though, two swans broke into a heated race down the lake, which sounded like horses galloping as their wings slapped against the water. I couldn’t believe it.

I will definitely return to Lucerne in the future, and I will definitely ski the Alps. I wouldn’t mind living in Switzerland either.

After Switzerland, I hopped a seven hour train ride to Fussen, Germany, the home of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles. I was quite relieved to find that I could eat a filling meal for less than $10. And boy did I eat while I was there. I ate lake pike in dill sauce, turkey schnitzel (saving the veal for elsewhere), liver and pancake soup, liver loaf, Bavarian sausages with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes, a roasted leg of pork with sauerkraut and a potato dumpling, a nice hot chocolate, Goulasch soup, a plum pastry, and, of course, beer. It was all really different than the past cuisines, but extremely delicious. It completely fits my style, which is man style…big piece of meat and some hearty sides. Once again, though, a shock to the digestive tract.

The highlight of this town, though, was what lay outside the little cobbled streets and shops. Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles can be experienced on the mountainsides neighboring the town. Neuschwanstein is the castle that Disney modeled their Cinderella castle after, if that gives you any sort of picture. It is set against a mountainside and has thick gray walls with pointy, rounded towers, and parapets all around. A picture would do this more justice. Neuschwanstein castle was the last of King Ludwig’s castles that he built across Bavaria. He actually only finished the 2nd and the 4th floors before he was declared insane by the other powers “that were” (does that work?). You see, they declared him insane because he was draining the country’s funds by building these castles for himself. They needed an excuse to take him out of power, thus the insanity accusation. After accusing him, they put him under the supervision of psychiatrists in another of his castles, where he spent most of his time. The psychiatrists had holes drilled in walls and doors, so they could view him wherever he went. King Ludwig ended up drowning in a neighboring lake at the age of 52 with one of his psychiatrists. They’re not exactly sure whether it was accidental or calculated, but I think calculated.

September 23, 2009 (More on Italy)

Northern Italy is the home of failed intestinal tracts, I’ve decided. There is a reason why Italians talk about their digestifs all the time. If you’re ever in Italy for any extended stay, I would suggest taking the coffee and grappa mix that they offer you…or else. I think that I can stop there.

I wish there were as many interesting cultural twists to write about with Italy as with Turkey, but unfortunately I can’t seem to find them. It’s just too darn western here. The Italians are a very fashionable people, many with a dark tan to olive complexion…very nice. The Sicilians are definitely a darker breed. They really do eat pasta once a day, or so it seems. For the most part, people are slimmer, very few of them toting big bellies. Many of the women like to dye their hair a lighter color, which really doesn't surprise me, but you will also find more natural blondes and redheads in Sicily, because they were under Norman rule for about 300 years and still retain some of the genetic heritage. They seem like an easy-going bunch with lots of good food to eat and lots of social forums. I’d imagine that the stress-free life they have works to counteract the cultural smoking habit (at least when it comes to life duration). I’m sure that this is really no surprise to any of you either.

Running through the landscape, I find that I could very possibly be in Upstate New York, minus the centuries old mills that I’m running by or the irrigated fields that have been that way since Roman times. One thing strikes me is that the forests all around Sforzesca are arranged in neat little rows. It turns out that they are poplar forests being grown and harvested for paper. Cool for the moment, but definitely lacking some natural aesthetic, methinks.

Sforzesca is near the pretty little town of Vigevano. Both of these are about an hour away from Milan to the west. Sforzesca was the part-time countryside residence of one of the Milanese ruling families, the Sforzas. It used to be their playground where they could lounge in their palatial houses and hunt in the forests for wild game. Night time activities probably included pin the tail on the donkey or a nice game of wine-pong…don’t tell me that drinking games were nonexistent back then. My hosts' house was right next to the former castle/palace/mansion of Ludovico del Moro, which is now in disrepair.

On to my hosts. In this beautiful little place in Northern Italy, I stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Gatti, Giulia, and Umberto Gatti, who are probably the most warm and welcoming people that you could encounter. I seem to be striking it lucky on this journey…almost too often. Should I be worried?

For the past 5 days or so, I have been living in a house in the Italian countryside with a gate and a front yard with pigeons in a coup and little mushrooms that pop up and are ready to be eaten. I’ve also been enjoying good northern Italian home cooked meals. I’ve been told by the daughter, Giulia, that her family doesn’t always eat like we’ve been eating, but they could’ve fooled me. The food was delicious. Everyone but Giulia cooks. Both the dad and the mom are very good cooks, and the son, Umberto, who is 18, is actually an aspiring chef. He has been working in restaurants for a few years now and is moving to Manchester, England in October to learn English and work in kitchens. At the Gatti’s house, I enjoyed rabbit stew, Milanese cutlets, fennel salad, cooked fennel, gnocchi in Gorgonzola sauce, penne in ragu and pesto sauce, frutti de mare soup, and three different kinds of ravioli: one made with goose, one with pumpkin, butter and sage, and the other made with Italian cheeses. The meals were, of course, complete with wine and desserts, etc.

While I’m on the vein of food, I should report that I worked in a restaurant named Trattoria De Carla for one night. This restaurant is Umberto’s ex-restaurant (Umberto makes it sound like his ex-girlfriend), which he worked in for two years. The restaurant was really classy (think brick archways, a wine list 200 bottles long, and fresh pasta that’s so good that it makes you want to grab the nearest little old Italian woman and give her a big smooch). The restaurant is included in the Michelin Restaurant Guide for 2005-2007, and a guide book of antique trattorias, among other things. The menu changes every season and even undergoes minor changes every few weeks. Between this restaurant and the ritzy place, Burro, down in Sicily, I am very confident that I can cook some good pasta. I have recorded many recipes, some of which I will include in a later post.

I think the best way to see Northern Italy is by car; otherwise, you get a very diluted experience on a bus with lots of tourists and you can’t really enjoy real non-touristified rural places. So, seeing that it fit into my budget, I rented a little car and drove around the Italian landscape for a couple of days with a GPS that the Gattis let me borrow. It was awesome! I set my little GPS to avoid toll roads and saw some of the most amazing sites. Driving up little one-lane roads and along hillcrests, I saw vineyards, castles and quaint little Italian towns, stopping as I went. I will always remember my second day with the car, because it was perfect. I left the Gatti’s house in the morning and drove toward a little place named Alba. Here, the white truffle harvest is out and every restaurant sports Tartufo (truffle) something on their menu. I had to try truffles, even though I knew my wallet was going to take a punch, so I ordered raw veal with fresh white truffles shaved on top. Words cannot describe the taste…it’s just something that you have to experience. I've been told by multiple people that white truffles are superior to black truffles at about $7000-9000 per pound. I also had a very good appetizer that was a puree of sardines, tuna, capers, and olives wrapped in a supple yellow pepper. It certainly beats most other stuffed peppers that I have ever tried. The meal wouldn’t have cost that much if I’d ordered the raw veal (tartar) by itself, but the 139 gram truffle that I had shaved on top cost 65 euro—a good experience, but not one that can be enjoyed often until I’m an oil or railroad tycoon.

As if the day hadn’t been perfect already, I found a vineyard that was willing to give me a tour for free. I took my little Fiat 500 with a red stripe way out into the country at about 3 pm until there was nothing but aisles of grape vines surrounding me on all sides. My GPS landed me at Piazzo Franzione, where there were three very large, very traditional Italian looking buildings. I exited the car and was greeted by two very jovial, golden puppies that just wanted to jump all over me and turn my white shirt brown with the vineyards soil. Come to find out, they were just unnamed vineyard puppies, kind of like barn cats. I watched them fight over a fallen bunch of grapes for a minute before approaching the front door, which was about four of me high. Franco greeted me with a smile and a “how are you, nice to meet you.” His hands were meaty and calloused compared to my hands, which are only used to heavy pencil work. He was a little shorter than me and I could tell that he was a hard worker by the lines on his face and the tan that comes from spending many days moving in and out of the sun and inspecting long rows of grapes. The lines also showed a face that was used to smiling big. A motion of his hand indicated that I was welcome to inspect anything in his vineyard.

The vineyard was 12 hectares, which is very large for that region and it specializes in Barbaresco grapes. In addition, though, it has a broad range of wines and sells about 300-500,000 bottles a year...I think that’s good, but I can’t honestly tell you. I pretty much saw the whole process from grape picking to fermentation. After a venture into the fields, I watched the trucks dump their loads of grapes that had been picked by the 17 workers on the opposite hillside. I’m pretty sure I was thinking, “wow, this is cool,” as the back hatch of the truck opened slightly to introduce a waterfall of grape juice into a vat followed by a purple avalanche of grapes. It was even cooler watching the grapes being transported through plastic tubing to and fro. I felt like Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

I must pause for a minute, because I’m currently on a train from Milan into Switzerland, and I am passing a very picturesque lake with mountains on all sides—the foothills of the Alps. I’m very excited for this leg of the journey, because I finally get to speak German. I actually just spoke German with three guys for about a half hour in the train station. Sweet!

Ok, I'm back...the vineyard. Franco showed me around all the facilities with its brick lined cellars full of truck sized barrels on the left and smaller barrels on the right. I was also shown where they bottle and keep all of the vintages. Enormous facilities, they were. I also got to explore endless rows of grapes, both red and white, and eat as many as I wanted, while enjoying the most spectacular views of the hillsides. I spent a solid three hours exploring. Afterward, I sat in an a very large, brick-ceilinged room with vintages lining all sides. I drank Spumanti and a strong red wine with one of the local pastors and the owner of the vineyard while talking about my travels…they were very interested to hear of life outside of their hills, our company mutual. Altogether, it was a fascinating and memorable experience. The best part is that it was free. I have a feeling that they usually charge, but there weren’t any tourists then, so I think he just wanted to help a student from the kindness of his heart.

Now I really have to stop because the Alps are towering about me and the little train that I’m traveling on. I’ll pick this up in my next journal entry.