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.

September 19, 2009 (Some Italian Adventures)

I landed in Sforzesca in Northern Italy last night. I traveled a whole 24 hours from Catania, Sicily from Thursday night at 7 pm to last night at 7 pm and it was grueling. I took a very dingy, dirty Trenitalia train, where I had to sleep in “sleeper seats,” which are these seats with headrests on both the back and sides. If you looked at some of the seats, they were a whole five shades darker than the others, which really grossed me out, but at the same time I knew I was saving money and I knew that I would be getting to my destination. The train ride would have been really cool if it was during the day, because I traveled by the water and the Amalfi Coast, but I didn't see a thing. I probably passed some great sites in Tuscany too, I’m sure. About an hour into the train ride, I crossed the water from Sicily to the Italian Peninsula by boat. The train actually boards this enormous carrying ship and is then transported to a connecting point on the other side…it’s quite cool. There were some shady looking characters on board and a lot of the people would hang out the dirty, clouded windows to feel the night air and occasionally smoke a cigarette. I felt like I was on one of those Wild West trains.

At one point during the night, I saw a couple of police officers rushing through the train, which immediately registered “banditos!!”to me. I quickly checked for all my luggage and felt for my backpack under the seat that I had clipped to the chair post. That bag had all my valuables in it. My ticket was supposed to be to Bologna, but I figured that I could stay on the train all the way to Milan, which is about an hour north. I was wrong, though. When I arrived in Bologna, I had my stuff all over the little cabin, and I had just gotten up to go to the bathroom. A bunch of people came rushing onto the train, though, and I got trapped at one end. Then it hit me, “oh nuts (to say it lightly), they’re getting on to sit in the seats where my stuff is." I quickly wriggled my way back through them to get to the cabin and was greeted with many confused and slightly perturbed faces. I packed as quickly as I could and then darted for the exit. Dazed, confused, and tired, I sat down to have my morning coffee and then spent the day strolling around Bologna before getting back on the train to Milan. I’m almost glad that I got caught in Bologna, though, because I found the best gelato I’ve ever had at this place called “Pecatti di Golo da Claudio,” off of Independenza. I don't just say best for any gelato, though. Owing to the fact that I'm a fatty and I've spent a total of five weeks in Italy this year (between choir tour and this trip) I’ve eaten a lot of gelato. I've learned that when you’re looking for the good stuff, you should always check to see that the colors are not bright, the gelato is not in pretty waves, and especially make sure that the banana is gray to white and the pistachio a very dull green. It’s also probably good if it says “Artigianale” outside, which means artisanal, I think. I also tried some pumpkin ravioli with butter and sage, and, of course, some tortellini with ragu sauce (a Bolognese native).

September 14, 2009 (Sicily)

Today, I didn’t try too many Sicilian foods because I was coming off my sickness from Palermo. Today I am in the town of Catania, at the base of the mythical Mt. Etna, where the best Sicilian food can (supposedly) be found; however, last night I had a very awful pasta con sarde, which was a big letdown. I’ve been wanting to try pasta con sarde, because it is the very typical Sicilian dish, so I’ll have to find it somewhere else--some place with a little more clout. I suppose I should explain why the pasta was bad: it was very, very dry, with some sort of spice and crumb mixture covering it, but actually drowning it. The pasta was a very low quality penne and there were very few sardines in it. The dill looked like it had been added a little too early, also. I think this may have been the result of a bad cook, although he looked like he might have been doing it for a while. Perhaps he was just tired of cooking it so many damn times.

The other dish I tried last night was a stockfish stew in tomatoes, capers, potatoes, onions, and peppers. The flavor of the dish was very fishy and very capery, which is what a Sicilian dish is supposed to taste like. I’m not quite sure what a stockfish is, but it was very hearty and had a chewy and satisfying texture. This chewiness is a result of the fish being first dried, then reconstituted. It was a whitefish. Overall, I really enjoyed it. If it’s true what they say about the fish here at Mount Etna—that they have to develop tougher and thus sweeter muscles because of acidic waters—then it shouldn’t be a surprise that the texture of this fish was a bit more sinewy.

At this point, it is no surprise that Sicilians use a ton of fish in their recipes.

September 14, 2009 (From Bodrum, Turkey to Sicily)

Let’s go back in time to my final days of Turkey. Bodrum was one of the most relaxing places that I’ve ever visited. Other than just spending time on the porch and cooking, I did get a chance for a Turkish bath, a visit to the ancient city of Ephesus (Efes), and a boat tour of the southern waters of the peninsula. I’ll quickly run over each of them.

The Turkish bath was…an interesting experience to say the least. I walked into this place and the first thing that happened is that this little, bony guy started explaining to us all the different massage packages that could be added to our bath. He let us smell some very generic lily, orange and lilac oils, which he assured us were special. The couple to my left was from Belgium and didn’t speak any English and had a very confused look on their face. So did I. Anyways, after deciding that I was going to get a massage, I was told to change into my “bathing costume” and put on some slippers. After completing this task, I stepped into a room that was cylindrical in shape. It wasn’t quite a sauna, just very sweaty. Shortly thereafter, the Belgian couple walked in. After a brief period of language barrier confusion (this consists of wrinkling your eyebrows, cracking a smile and shrugging your shoulders) I decided that I would wet myself down with one of the little blue dog bowls that sat by a little sink with a faucet. There were about eight of these lining the perimeter of the sweaty tuna can room. A younger guy walked into the room, sans shirt with wash cloth in hand, and instructed all of us to lay down on this large circular stone that was in the middle of the room. He then proceeded to throw cold water on us while we weren’t looking…I’m sure this is his dirty little joke to pass the boring hours at work. Belgium and I looked very confused again. To make a long story shorter, the guy came back in and rubbed all of the skin off my body with this skin scraper glove that everyone got scraped with—I think that’s gross? Then, I got soaped down by another dude, who wanted to speak to me in Turkish, so I tried my best. Later on, the massage consisted of me getting jasmine oil rubbed into me for about a half hour. My hairy Turkish masseuse was just ok and at one point reached for something over me, which meant that I got a face full of hairy man chest. I guess it was a good experience? When everything was said and done, the man at the front would not let me wash the oil off, because he said it was very, very special. I felt like a marinated slab of meat ready to be plopped on the grill. I was so oily, I think I could have slid all the way home.

My tour around the southern part of the peninsula and Rabbit Island was very cool. I got a full day on this boat called a gulet, with five stops for swimming in beautiful Aegean waters and lunch for only $18…I felt like I had cheated someone. There was a huge space on top of the boat for lounging in the sun on these big pillows and many tables on the floor below.

The tour of Efes was fun and pretty interesting; however, the packaged tour was a little tedious and unnecessary at points. First of all, there were two mandatory tourist stops, one of which was a jewelry outlet. No one on the bus really knew that our tour was going to stop at this place, so my look of confusion was met with equal looks of confusion. When we stepped inside, I noticed that the order of language translation was German, then English, then Turkish, then something else—it was curious. I arrived in the showroom, which was multiple levels and very large, to be briefed on how we could look about for jewelry and was told that all the men with suits and ties lining the perimeter could speak most languages. I decided to pretend like I was going to buy something because I had nothing else to do. I got one of the guys to come and start explaining stuff to me. I acted stupid at first to see what he’d tell me. I got him to tell me that Turkish jewelry production was the best in the world and that some of the gems in front of me were very special and only native to that area…haha! I then took off the stupid face and started to question him about the order of language translation I had seen earlier, and who the investors were. I then told him I was a geology minor in college and knew much more about stones than he thought I did. In the end, I found out that a lot of the jewelry wasn’t actually manufactured there and that the stones were not specific to that region…I felt triumphant and I hope he felt a little ashamed. Anyways, the tour of Efes was cool and it was neat to imagine the ancient debris around me once piled up into archways, statues and buildings. The intact ancient library made me feel like I needed to look for ancient symbols leading to the holy grail or the ark of the covenant or something (who am I, Dan Brown?). It’s not every day that you get to stand in the ruins of a 3000 year old city. It was also very amusing to watch all of the tourist women sit down on something only to find that their butts were covered with dirt when they got up…the looks on their faces were priceless.

That’s enough about Southern Turkey.

My last night in Istanbul was very lovely. I went to my favorite two places (Namli's Deli and Gullioglu Baklava) for food with Nafiz and we ate until we were about to explode. I had numerous Turkish cold mezes and the best baklava in Istanbul, which is really so much better than anything you can get in the states. We sat and talked late into the morning, which is something we did a lot all summer…an apt ending.

So where have I been, calendar wise? Let’s see. Last Saturday, September 5, I was in Bodrum (southern Turkey), the day after that I was in Istanbul, the day after that I was in Venice, and then 2 days after that I was in Palermo, Sicily, where I stayed until Monday morning. I’ll give some of the highlights.

In Venice, I had a little less typical experience. I spent a lot of time exploring the streets that aren’t on the main drag. It’s pretty amazing to compare food prices in the restaurants that are just 2 minutes walk from the main drag. The prices go down by a third to a half in some instances. The food is just as good or better too. I also got to do some of the typical things, such as having coffee at Rialto bridge, a pizza in one of the popular piazzas, a spritz along the Grand Canal, gelato at the Accademia bridge, a walk through the pigeons at San Marco square, and a boat ride up the Grand Canal…but those are boring and touristy. I had another experience that was much more cool than those. I decided to pick out a very fancy restaurant to eat dinner at. At first, I just happened on this place that was tucked in the streets behind San Marco square. It looked very authentic and had a cool premise. It was actually a Medieval, Renaissance kitchen that displayed all of the different dishes with the century they belonged to. There were things such as sturgeon, dates, figs, rose jelly, and green aspic on the menu...I was very intrigued. I actually noticed a lot of similarities with some of the medieval Muslim cookbooks I had been reading in Turkey. It was a little pricey, but I determined that I could make it work with my budget. When I went back to my Hostel in Mestre, just outside of Venice, I looked up the restaurant and found that the Bistrot de Venise was rated 2nd of 489 restaurants in Venice! I was very excited.

Later that night, I chose the 65 Euro chef’s sampling menu. These are the things I tried that night:

1) Onion scampi with Turkish grapes
2) Sturgeon marinated in syrup with green aspic and cherries
3) lamb cheeks and liver over homemade ravioli
4) Glazed duck with liver, cherries and sweet-earthy dried fruits
5) Sturgeon with almond pudding and cherries
6) Ricotta cheesecake with flower jellies and melon sorbet
7) Cinnamon-sugar cookies with sambuca (a liqueur of licorice) custard and spiced cream
8) A nice, but fairly inexpensive white wine (I’m no connoisseur yet)

I was completely stuffed by the end and basically rolled through the dimly lit streets of Venice back to the bus station. I arrived home at about 2:30 in the morning, because the meal took over 3 hours to complete! Phew!

One other thing about Venice is this: I never paid for the buses into or out of the city. I couldn’t figure out how to get tickets and no one ever stopped me from getting on or off the bus. Penny saved is a penny earned. I’ll send the Venetian municipal services 10 Euro when I’m a millionaire.

The morning after my extravagant meal, I hopped a plane to Palermo. This is where I met Mario, who I mentioned in my last post. Palermo was cool, because it was actually a functioning little city, mostly devoid of tourists. The city is about 2 million people and is right on the coast, so much of the cuisine is fish and other sea creatures. I spent five days in Palermo and had a wonderful time with Mario and Glenda as my hosts. Glenda is Mario’s assistant. They wouldn’t let me pay for any of my meals in the five days that I was there and took me all over the city to try the food. I got to try typical Sicilian pastries, rolled and breaded fishes, ricotta cheesecakes, frutti de mare everything, monkfish, pasta galore, fried balls of fish and other assorted things, pistachio dishes (they have the best pistachios in the world here), and many other things. Mario also hooked me up with a place called Burro, which means butter in English. It was run by his good friends and was a very chic chic, popular place. They served stuff from all over Italy, but had many Sicilian dishes that I learned. Here is a list of some of the things I learned:

1) Eggplant and zucchini dolce
2) Creamy sausage and mushroom linguine
3) Truffle Fettucinne
4) Cottoletta
5) Mussel and shrimp scampi
6) Sicilian tuna steak with pistachios
7) Sicilian Capponata Sauce
8) Brioche pasta and variations
9) Panella
10) Cold couscous salad
11) An eggplant, tuna, and shrimp dish
12) Sicilian Pizza (Sfincione)
13) Sicilian Arancine
14) Panzelloto Napoletana
15) Trapani Bruschetta
16) Calzoncini (with Brioche pasta)

Hopefully I’ll have Pasta con Sarde and Cuttlefish in ink-sauce to add to that list.

I also visited the Cappuccini Catacombs (yes cappuccino is Sicilian, and so are cannoli), where they have hundreds of bodies wired to the walls that are dated beginning in 1599. As you walk around the catacombs, you are walking on tombstones and there are coffins and caskets littered about. The bodies were preserved with arsenic, vinegar, and spices, so a lot of them still have the skin, hair, and eyes intact…it’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen! There were bodies of males, females, and children, all in their period dress. Some of the bodies from the early 20th century even had a blurry photo of the live person. You can tell that they don’t spend a lot on tourism in Palermo, because the bodies are literally just popped out of the caskets and either placed on a surface or wired to the wall…no glass coverings or anything. I could have reached over and shook one of there hands. Definitely see this if you are coming to Palermo.

The last couple days of Palermo were a bit drab for me, because I contracted a nasty stomach virus, complete with fever, headache, and super sensitive skin. I couldn’t leave my hotel room for about 2 days and I couldn’t even do anything while in the hotel room. Mario and Glenda took care of me and brought me medication, so I eventually came out of it and I’m now ready to grasp the world again and eat. I was on a steady diet of plain white rice and toast for about 2 days.

I am now sitting in Catania, Sicily at the base of Mount Etna, the mythological volcano from Homer’s Odyssey. This area is known for it’s food, because the volcanic soils are very fertile and produce some very quality foods such as pistachios (best in the world…sorry Iran), mandarins, and almonds. The fish in the waters surrounding the volcano are also supposed to be exceptional, because they have to develop stronger muscles to live in the acidic environment, which taste better to humans…I guess. I am hoping to stuff myself, because I need to gain some weight. At the end of my Turkish adventure, I hopped on a scale to find that I had lost about 15 lbs.!! I’m guessing I’ve lost another 2 lbs. as a result of the sickness. Time to gain it back so I can fit into my clothes again.

September 10, 2009 (Sicily)

Well, I am happy to report that I am still living and breathing right now, although it is a much different air than before. Right now, I sit in a four star hotel room with a view that overlooks the entire city of Palermo and the Sicilian coastline. Looking out my window, I see mountains and cliffs to the left and the right, and to the front is the bustling Sicilian capitol of Palermo emerging from between the mountains and terminating at water’s edge. You might ask why I am sitting in a four-star hotel room when I am supposed to be saving money. The answer is that my hotel room is being partly furnished through Atlantic Foods, a distributor that works with Casa Imports in Utica, NY. Casa Imports is an Italian food distributor owned by Phil Casamento and John Fornino, two men I was fortunate enough to meet while in my time at Hamilton. The contact that Casa Imports set up for me is Mario Stancampiano, who deals with Casa Import’s Italian distributors and Atlantic foods. Mario is an extremely gracious and jovial Sicilian (who has lived in Sicily his entire life) who used to be a chiropractor. Thirteen years ago, he dropped the chiropractic job to join his (second) cousin, Phil Casamento, in importing Italian foods to America. Phil Casamento and John Fornino started the company about 28 years ago after having run a successful pizza business in Utica. Casa Imports now has about 8000 products from all over Italy. Mario travels all around Italy every week to visit their manufacturers…it sounds like one of the sweetest jobs that I could ever imagine.

A return to my long lost friend: THE BLOG

I sit in Toulouse, France, the sounds of pedestrians passing by and a crazy man in a pink hat singing a Disney song at the top of his lungs--first time for that specific scenario. But then again, this journey seems to be an ever evolving series of firsts for me that have been hitherto unpublicized. This post marks a new beginning of blogging frenzy sparked by the availability of a cheap internet source.

So, let me explain. Since arriving in Italy on September 7, 2009, I have been moving with great frequency. Here is the list of places I've been and the dates.

7-9...Venice, Italy
9...Palermo, Sicily (technically Italy)
14...Catania, Sicily (at the Base of Mt. Etna)
15...Taormina, Sicily
16...Syracuse, Sicily
17...Top of Mt. Etna
18...Bologna, Milan, and Vigevano, Italy (14 hour train ride to Northern Italy stopping as I went)
19...Vigevano/Sforzesca, Italy
20...Bra, Italy (International Slow Food Cheese Festival)
21...Vigevano/Sforzesca, Italy
22...Verona, Italy (Romeo?)
23...Alba, Italy (for the truffle harvest and vineyard tour)
24-26...Spiez and Lake Lucerne, Switzerland
26...Fussen, Germany
28...Munich, Germany (Oktoberfest)
30...Harburg, Donauworth, and Dinkelsbuhl, Germany

1...Bad Murgentheim, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and Creglingen, Germany
2...Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Wurzburg, and Berlin, Germany
3-6...Berlin, Germany
6-10...Hamburg (Ahrensburg), Germany
10-12...Cologne, Germany (Anuga International Food Festival)
12-15...Frankfurt, Germany
15-18...Paris, France
18-23...Toulouse, France
23-24...St. Affrique, France
25...St. Affrique, Roquefort (yes, the cheese), and Millau, France
26...Toulouse, France

I'll save you the counting and tell you that I've seen 33 separate cities and towns in Europe in the last 50 days...I'm tired. You might now guess why it has been some time since I've posted anything. However, I'm back!! I have decided to slow the pace a little and blog a little more frequently for the rest of Europe and especially India. While on this whirlwind adventure, I did manage to write while on public transportation, so this blog will be teeming with my travels within the next day. Each blog post's title will be the date of when I wrote the entry. I hope you enjoy!

Before I end this post, though, I will give you the remainder of my European schedule.

27-31...Toulouse, France

1-2...Toulouse, France
2-4...Paris, France
4-6...Frankfurt, Germany
6-8...Amsterdam, The Netherlands
8-10...Frankfurt, Germany
10-14...Leoben, Austria
14-20...Vienna, Austria

THEN INDIA for 4 months!!