Monthly Archives: October 2013

Home Sweet Home

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Well, the weather was about to set in, winter was on the way, so we had no option but to fly south.  And after about 34 hours on the move and in the air, we arrived home safely.  Now of course we’re enduring the process of our bodies adjusting to a time zone that is 12 hours out of kilter.  I read somewhere that your body adjusts by about one time zones per day.  So we’ve got several days before we feel back to normal. 

I still have things to say, and photos to show.  So I’ll do a few round-up posts.  Bear with me, as they are likely to leap about in no logical order.

Running out of words … and time …

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For the last four and a half months, we have been surrounded by speakers of foreign languages.  Or perhaps, we have been the speakers of the foreign language, English, surrounded by Arabic, Hebrew and Italian.  Polish too, but we had some light relief there staying with a friend, and so had plenty of lively conversation in English.  It took a bit of time to stop thinking and speaking in Italian, but once we hit English shores, we slipped back into our native tongue with ease.  (Though I will admit, comprehension isn’t guaranteed, what with our accents, and those of the English speakers we encounter, and the fact that many of them are not native speakers even here).

Suddenly we have English language TV, news at the flick of a switch, or in archaic paper form delivered under our hotel room door in the morning.  And with this immersion back into English, the need to blog – or perhaps the space just to tune out everything and think in English that leads to a blogpost – has diminished.

I will wrap up the blog when we get home, put on some more photographs and thoughts of Poland (Chopin, and good bread), and maybe some of London.  But many of my readers know London well, so I won’t dwell.  We’ve been having some very “English” days – Covent Garden markets, Victoria and Albert museum, a West End show, getting caught in the rain, a curry for dinner, and walking back to our hotel through Soho.  We’ve explored new places, enjoyed the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum, strolled through St James Park, photographed squirrels, and supped beer in a pub.  We’ve been crushed in the Tube at rush hour, and pitied the poor Londoners.  We’ve had afternoon tea, thrilled over the availability of Asian food (finding Khao Soi – Chiang Mai noodles – was a highlight), and educated ourselves at museums.  So we are improving our minds, emptying our wallets, and expanding our … um … palates.

And all too soon we will be home.

A Polish journey

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I wiped my eyes. The temperatures in Warsaw were plummeting by the day. The chill wind stung my eyes, and caused them to water. We shivered in our layers, and lightweight coats -the Poles, more sensibly, were quickly into their winter woollies, hats, boots, and scarves. It didn’t stop us sightseeing though, and led by our friend we had no choice but to keep up a rapid pace. The town centre of Warsaw, destroyed in the war by the German occupying force, was completely rebuilt in the years following, and is a beautiful sight. We were privileged to get a private tour through the heritage museum with the son of one of the architects, showing us his father’s work, and talking about the process of reconstruction. Of course, this occurred during the Soviet era, so it wasn’t without difficulties, and his father ended up being forced to escape to Australia. In fact, he said that many people in Poland (non-Jews and persecuted minorities of course) consider the Soviet era to have been more difficult than the war years.

I wiped my eyes. For hours I had been straining them in an effort to see the deer we had been promised. But after three days in a car over the weekend, and into our third hour on the train south, the deer were proving to be elusive. The fellow travellers in our compartment, an American couple, suggested we admit defeat. They too were tiring of looking. And of course, as is the way of things, soon six or seven deer appeared at the edge of a cornfield, skittishly running off as the train sped past. I sat back and relaxed, satisfied.

It had been a good weekend. A four hour drive from Warsaw, our friends had planned the trip and we were only too happy to leave the decisions to them. We found ourselves sleeping in a haunted (supposedly) castle, though the ghost did not show itself, eating and drinking in quaint restaurants and old SS barracks, shivering at Hitler’s headquarters (the Wolf’s Lair), squishing through a marsh in search of Europe’s largest swan colony, smiling at a newly married Polish couple and their guests celebrating outside the church and loudly honking their horns as they drove round and around the village, sighing at the utter beauty of the lake district in full autumn colours, and snapping photos at the (unstaffed) Russian border. The countryside in Poland proved to be an unexpected pleasure, with rolling hills, beautiful tree-lined (albeit slow) roads, and soft, autumn light.

And now we were on the train to Krakow, former capital of Poland, and a beautiful city undamaged (physically) by the Second World War. The town square is large and beautiful, and even in the October chill it throngs with tourists. Wawel Castle overlooks the Old Town, and churches appear every street or two. University students (there are 120,000 in the city) form flashmobs, roller blading around the square in the evening, and square dancers entertain under the gaze of the old church. There are endless churches and museums, a rare Da Vinci to ogle, and plenty of history to keep you amused. If the Husband annoys, you can even send him to the Salt Mine (though you might find it interesting yourself, even if the final ride to the top in an industrial lift is a bit too claustrophobic for my liking).

Just down the street from our hotel is the Jewish quarter, now a bustling area with restaurants and clubs, and the Old Synagogue. And across the river you will find the infamous former Jewish ghetto, streets that look familiar from countless documentaries and movies. And at the edge of the former ghetto is Schindler’s factory, now a museum telling the story of the Jews in Krakow, and of the factory and its workers.

No first-time visit to Krakow though is complete without visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. It seemed appropriate to be there on a cold, gloomy day. The sights again are familiar, as are many of the stories and much of the information. But standing there, taking in the sheer magnitude of the horror, seeing the barracks and execution sites, walking through a gas chamber, past the train tracks where selections occurred, walking over the cobblestones – approximately 1.2 million representing the lives lost there – and imagining what it must have felt like, is indescribable.

I wiped my eyes.

Where are we now?

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This blog name and design now seems inappropriate, given the temperatures and gloom we’re in now. But the principle behind it still stands, and I’m going to see it through.

Three months in Italy saw us cover enough of the country, and we got out hours before we officially would have become over-stayers. A two hour flight saw us head north, into lands where autumn has well and truly arrived. Where autumn is equivalent to a cold Wellington winter. Where two people, after acclimatising to the heat of the Middle East and an Italian summer, shiver in their lightweight but easy-to-pack jackets, wear layer upon layer, and make plans to buy hats and scarves as soon as they can. Where nine degree highs are a sharp contrast to the 20 degree evenings that made at least one of us shiver back in beautiful Monopoli.

Here we are in the ancestral lands of The Husband, the land where at least one of his great grandparents decided to leave and take a chance on the other side of the world. Here we are, in a land where it is a little easier to blend in, until we open our mouths, that is. Here we are in a land to which I have only ever paid cursory attention, even given its role in two of the major world events of the 20th century (and that I studied in one of my majors). Here we are in a country that kicked off a revolution, and gave birth to a major religious leader.

Here we are in Poland. For a couple of weeks, at least.

Food for thought: Ten Features of Italian Food

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  1. Bread. We are generally very disappointed with the bread in Italy. Crusty bread with nothing between the crust makes eating a sandwich (panino) dry and difficult, if not downright painful. Only a few examples of sliced bread were available (and scarily these last for weeks), and I’ve already talked about toast. However, we did have some lovely bread that was made in-house by a couple of restaurants, and I also liked the southern variations on panini – puccie (a puccia is like a pizza crust, cut in half horizontally, and filled like a sandwich), and piadine (a piadina is a flat bread, like a slightly thick tortilla, filled like a sandwich, and grilled or fried till it is crispy).
  2. The Italians really eat very little meat. The meat sections in most menus were very limited. In a casual restaurant, you can get slices of beef (poorer cuts) or the very occasional fillet, usually offered with a green pepper sauce or occasionally red wine. We rarely found pork or lamb on the menu – only in the Italian lakes. Bread-crumbed (much like schnitzel) veal or chicken (the only chicken you’d find on a menu) made a regular but not compulsory appearance. We thought we might have better luck in the supermarkets or butcher shops, and in the north managed to find some fillet steak at about the same price as we’d buy in New Zealand (though not the same quality), which we cooked at home to satisfy our red meat/iron cravings.
  3. Rocket and provolone. The Italians love rocket. You find it on pizzas, or on top of grilled meat, sprinkled with some grated provolone cheese.  Almost without exception, when I saw an Italian woman eatiing a pizza, it had fresh rocket scattered across it.
  4. Grilled vegetables are on almost every menu. In Spain we loved these because they included capsicums. But here, most of the time, there was eggplant and zucchini only. Delicious, but ultimately monotonous.
  5. Pizza and pasta were everywhere. We had a variety of both, my favourite pasta from Rome (a funghi tortellini), and my favourite pizza (three different types of tomato, pesto, and buffalo mozzarella) in Monopoli.
  6. The Italians don’t really go in for desserts. Perhaps because they spend all day nibbling on pastries with their coffee, or eating gelato, there were very few menus with dessert. The occasional tiramisu or pannacotta, and occasional chocolate cake or chocolate fondant, really a French dessert. Our favourite trattoria in Vittorio Veneto had a delicious pear cake dessert, but other than that, pickings were scarce. Probably a good thing, given our regular consumption of gelato. But on the few occasions when we did attempt a dessert (other than the afore-mentioned pear cake), they were 80% whipped cream.
  7. Breakfast. Cereal pickings were also scarce, with only a few options available in the supermarket. (The Husband was horrified to discover there was no weet-bix!)  Yet there would be full aisles dedicated to packaged, take-home pastries, filled with jam or chocolate cream. We decided to try one of these, in the interests of blending in. Essentially sweet bread rolls made to look like the Italian version of a croissant, a cornetto, they were not that appealing. The Food Tour guides mentioned that Italians will often, like hobbits, have two breakfasts. Both are the same – a light cornetto (not as buttery or heavy as a croissant) and an espresso or cappuccino first thing, then another mid-morning, to keep them going till lunch.
  8. Seafood is a popular choice. Italians love seafood, and it is part of the Mediterranean diet. In Puglia, the seafood antipasti offerings must be tried. You don’t need anything for primi or secondi – a seafood antipasto is enough! And I lost count of the number of seafood pasta dishes I ate.  Seafood means shell-fish, octopus and squid more than fish.  Seafood is cheap.  Fish on the other hand was much more expensive, and charged by the etti (100 grams).  The most expensive dish we had was a filleted fish!
  9. The dish I want to recreate when I get home is the pumpkin gnocchi, drizzled with just a bit of olive oil and parmesan, that I ate in the Trattoria alla Cerva in Vittorio Veneto. I can still taste it. Sigh (bliss).
  10. “Ahhh,” everyone says when you say you are going to Italy. “Italian food is so good!” And yes, they are right. Much Italian food is truly excellent. But this time we found exactly the problem we discovered the first time we visited Italy. Menus don’t really vary. Traditional Italian food is exactly that, traditional. Except in special, innovative restaurants there is no fusion of old and new ideas, little evidence that chefs here take something traditional and put a twist on it. And certainly no suggestion of a fusion between Italian and another food culture, let alone a fusion between East and West that we are so familiar with at home. The passion about food exhibited by the Italians seems contradictory to their lack of interest in new foods. Is it fear of the foreign? Is it a concern that trying something new could be seen as verging on the traitorous? Is it an inability to comprehend that food from other places, or food that hasn’t been around for hundreds of years, could possibly be any good? Is their national pride so fragile that they fear that different food might be better? Or is it simply an insular focus on what they know, the security of the traditional, and the comfort of eating only the food that mamma used to make?
La Dolce Vita pizza.  The best I had in three months in Italy.

La Dolce Vita pizza. The best I had in three months in Italy.