Tuesday, May 25, 2004

What’s Next

On Thursday we leave for a wedding in Ireland. We are staying in a castle the first few days, and I am looking forward to a bit of a pampering. We also plan to drive around Ireland for a week. I haven’t been to Ireland for years and am excited about the prospect of Guinness and oysters, as well as the natural beauty of the island of course….

We get home on Monday, June 7th and on the 8th I am headed to Ljubljana, Slovenia to meet my dear friends Lisa and Mike for three days. Chris is joining us on the 9th. I am very happy at the prospect of seeing them.

I think I have said it before, but would to love to see any of you folks, here in Munich, or elsewhere in Europe.
A Nice Visit With Family

My sister Gina, her husband John and two adorable children Lily, 10, and Jack 7, flew into Munich on Friday, May 15. I cannot remember the last time I was so joyous to see someone! Actually, I can. It was April 1st when I flew in to Munich and found Chris waiting at the gate. But anyway, it was wonderful to see them. I started weeping like a baby the minute I caught sight of them. They stayed with us for three days. We drove them around Bavaria and into the Alps, but I think the highlight of the kids time here was a trip to Lego Land Deutschland. Chris had read about it and having been obsessed with legos as a kid, was keen to go. When he found out that Jack had a similar obsession it was a done deal. We really had a fun day, completely unscripted.

On Monday, the 17th, Gina, John, Lily, Jack and I caught an early morning train to Venice. It is a seven and a half hour long ride but it flies by quickly as you stare out the window at the majestic scenery. Some of the Alps still are snow covered and it makes for a beautiful view. Without knowing one can tell when one has entered into Italy. The landscape becomes less pristine and Alpine and more chaotic and Italian with terraced vineyards and warmer architecture. We arrived in Venice and took the vaporetto up the Grand Canal, which I have done a few times, but was best experienced with my sister and her kids. The wide-eyed expressions on their faces as we slowly inched up the Grand Canal were priceless. Venice is many things - crowded, overwhelming at times and with a slight air of decay about her, but completely beautiful and unique. Standing in San Marco it’s hard not to feel to feel the collective weight of history on the place. All the doges who must’ve walked through that beautiful piazza, Napoleon, every movie star worth his salt, Lord Byron, Robert Barrett Browning, the American eccentric and art collector Peggy Guggenheim, John Ruskin, J.M.W. Turner, Canaletto, Titian, Tintoretto – the list of those dazzled by Venice is dizzying. Still, there is sadness about the place. Real Venetians are few and far between these days. The place exists solely for tourism. Yet despite the melancholy air of Venice, I love it. The light is different there and life is at a slower pace somehow. There are hundreds of secret corners, tiny alleys leading into beautiful sun drenched piazzas, people standing around at dusk drinking small, chilled glasses of wine, both red and white, the hustle and bustle of the canal workers (a particularly funny sight: A UPS man driving a boat laden with packages), children chasing soccer balls, old ladies walking their tiny dogs, the sound of motorboats, the taste of the espresso, the smell of salt water in the lagoon – it’s all a feast for the senses.

We left Venice after a few days of church crawls and sightseeing and headed to Florence on the Eurostar which should have been a quick hop, but ended up as a five and a half hour journey because, tragically, our train hit and killed someone which was most unsettling. Upon arrival, we almost immediately headed to our hotel, high in the Florentine hills in Fiesole, with views of the Duomo on one side and the Tuscan hills on the other.

Our hotel was at the top of a hill which we reached after a ten minute walk punctuated by huffing and puffing and a bit of cursing, at least on my part. But it was a dream, with beautiful screenless windows opening up onto the whole Tuscan vista below us. Chris joined us that evening, as did Jen and Paul, which was a welcome surprise! I have traveled a bit in Italy with them both and we have always had a good time, eating, drinking and soaking up the atmosphere. Like me they are sybarites when it comes to travel, really good companions with whom to share a meal or bottle of wine.

Florence was mobbed with throngs of tourists. I’d been there several times before, but never had I felt the city throbbing as it was on this trip. One wonders how all the art and history can withstand it. As usual, I stood in a long line to see Michelangelo’s David, which had been newly cleaned. Its genius and beauty never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It is simply the most stunning work of art I have ever seen. One feels the divine inspiration it must have taken to produce a work so powerful. The Sistine Chapel is a wonder too, but doesn’t produce the same visceral reaction in me that David does. I will always wait in a line to see him and I don’t care how long it is.

I also took a peek at the Medici Chapels, which I had seen years ago with Joanna. There are more beautiful sculptures by Michelangelo which decorate the tombs of the Medici, who, judging by the looks of this opulent place, must have thought an awful lot of themselves.

Speaking of Joanna, she loomed large over this visit. The past three or four trips I took to Italy were with her and I missed her presence more than I can convey. Our friendship was made and sealed in Italy. One night we toasted to absent friends. It made me cry. But we will be together again in Italy, when we all are renting a place on the Amalfi Coast for my friend Tom’s fortieth birthday!

We split into groups during the day and shared dinners in Fiesole at night. On our last night we all went to a small pizzeria with a wood burning oven. We drank a load of vino della casa and had a lot of laughs. We walked back to our hotel and sat on the terrace quaffing more wine and chatting as Lily and Jack played. It was a perfect ending to a lovely sojourn. In the morning, Chris, Jen, Paul and I headed back to Munich and Gina and John and the kids went to Rome. I felt sad saying goodbye to them, but really thankful for the wonderful experience we’d just had.
Sexy Dog

After much research, I found a really great kennel called Hundepension Palm, which is outside of Munich, deep in the woods, surrounded by bright yellow fields of rape. We took a ride out there a few weeks ago and were really pleased with what we found. The owner, a very sweet woman named Frau Kufner, is obviously an animal lover. There are horses, cows, and free range chickens whose eggs she sells. She has about ten or fifteen large fenced in areas with dog houses and grass, and plenty of room for dogs to cavort. She lets dogs of like breeds stay together. When we dropped Henry off before our trip to Italy, she asked if we wanted Henry segregated at night, inside. I told her to use her judgment.

He seemed happy the minute we got there, with not even a glance back at me as he began to play with another Labrador. We drove away feeling good about leaving him. Yesterday when we picked him up, he was running free having just been washed. I asked her how he was and she got a glint in her eye and said “He is a very sexy dog.” It appears that for the first three or four days all he did was mount the bitches. She said he was unrelenting in his ardor (translation: really horny) and appeared to enjoy himself, but on about that the fourth day he collapsed either from boredom or exhaustion.

I was pleased that he had a little fun while we were off in Italy gorging ourselves on food, art and wine!

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Settling In

I have been on a more even keel the past few weeks, settling in to my new life and getting into a routine. Changing hasn’t been easy, but it has been full of small rewards. I am trying to focus on them rather than on the fact that I miss my old life and the people in it.

There are some truly lovely people here, without whom I would be lost. Jen has been great. We see each other a few times a week to commiserate as we eat, usually in some tiny Italian place I have sussed out. One of the truly wonderful things about Munich is the amount of Italians who have emigrated here and started these great little trattorias. Several weeks ago we ate in one with four tables and had the most amazing tagliatelle al tartufo with a beautiful glass of straw colored Orvieto. We followed it up with a perfect cup of cappuccino served by a sexy young Italian waiter. Giddyup! Last week’s find was Bistro Isola di Ischia (Ischia, for those of you not obsessed with Italy, is a small island off the coast of Naples). Another small joint with tables packed together, but we managed to find a comfortable spot for us and for Henry patiently curled up at my feet. These places don’t have an extensive menu, just what the chef/owner was in the mood to cook. We both went with spaghetti con rucola (arugula) and a glass of crisp vinho verde from Portugal. The chef sautéed the arugula with a smattering of fresh tomatoes and garlic. We put some pecorino romano on it as well as some black pepper and it was amazing. We walked away from lunch having spend something crazy like eight dollars.

I often think about my friend Mark, from Rent A Chef in Haddonfield, when I am eating these uncomplicated yet wonderful meals. Mark has been trying to do something similar in his place. He offers three or four entrees for lunch priced at about five dollars and they never failed to please me and my lunch buddies, Jason, Bob and Danny. Unabashed plug here: Mark is a great chef, an engaging guy who really wants to please. If you aren’t taking advantage of his skills, honed in France, you’re crazy!

Lise is another angel. Chris has known her for years. She’s from Dublin and has lived in Munich for years. I met her years ago when she was visiting Jen and Paul in Haddonfield and we hit it off immediately talking about books. She’s smart and funny and as warm as anyone I have ever met. She has gone out of her way to welcome me. In the year running up to me coming to Munich, we emailed most days, and really began what I hope is a solid lifelong friendship. Lise reminds me of Joanna in that she’s an earth mother and very open. Loves to feed people. Very easy to be with. Chris travels overnight at least one night a week and Lise has seen to it that I am busy when he is away. Last week we dyed one another’s hair and highlighted this Irish gal Anne’s hair as Jenny sat back drinking Prosecco and offered commentary! Then we watched Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It was like being with Jo and Tom and John!

I am homesick, but I am dealing with it, making a home with Chris and Henry, really expanding my relationship with Jenny and Lise, as well as others. I am dealing. There have been some tough days, usually when it is raining. I just want to crawl under the covers and ignore the world, but don’t. I force myself to get up and get dressed and get on with things. I think the thing I miss the most is that the phone never rings! At home I was totally connected, almost too much so. But I am learning that it can be nice being out of the loop, not knowing the minutiae of everything!

Just when I need it a lot, I am getting a visit from home. My sister Gina, her husband John and their two great kids Lily, 10, and Jack, 7, arrive in Munich on Friday morning! We have all sorts of fun stuff planned and leave for Italy on Monday morning. We are taking a train which goes through the Alps and the Brenner Pass. It is a spectacular ride which I took last year. There’s no reading, no knitting. All you can do is gape at the stunning Alps! I am looking forward to it with the kids. I have been to Italy an almost embarrassing amount of times and am simply dying to share it with my beloved sister who sees art and beauty all around in her daily life!

Chris is meeting us there next week. We’ll head back to Munich on the 23rd from Florence and Gina, John and the kids will continue on to Rome and leave from there on the 27th. We also leave Munich for 12 days in Ireland on the 27th. Chris’ good friend is getting married in a castle outside of Dublin so we are using that as a springboard to a nice jaunt around Ireland.

I will try to squeeze a few lines in between Italy and Ireland, but I am not overly optimistic!

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

A Walk Along the Isar

We spent Sunday walking along the banks of the Isar River, which cuts through Munich in a similar fashion as the Schuykill in Philadelphia. In Munich, there are beautiful trails on both sides of this icy river which is fed from the Alps. The water runs fast and is a dreamy green color with rocks and rapids in some parts. It is clean and pristine. Muncheners love their river! Yesterday we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of people on its shore, sunbathing, barbecuing, fishing, playing with their children and their dogs. We walked for miles down a quiet trail, looking at the flowering trees which in their final days of bloom. We walked for three or four miles with Henry, just chatting and enjoying the magnificent weather. One of the most interesting things about this city is the fact that weather changes constantly due largely to the Alps, or so I have been told. There’s a very interesting weather phenomenon here, a warm, violent wind which blows in from the Alps in Southern Bavaria. It is likened to other famous winds such as the Santa Ana in California, the scirocco in Africa and the mistral in France. The locals think the fohn changes people, brings on migraines and encourages erratic behavior in general. I will report further!

Walking along this busy river was a wonderful way to spend Sunday afternoon. Henry was in good form, sniffing and marking the entire way! Of course we stumbled onto a beer garden in the middle of large wooded area. We stopped for a quick beer for us and water for Henry. Every beer garden has a watering station for dogs. They usually are on pedestals with a high, medium and low bowls to accommodate dogs of every size. The tables were dappled with the sun filtering through the trees and shining on our faces.

We crossed the river via a long wooden foot bridge. At this part of the Isar, many folks gather with their children and picnic. Everyone seemed so carefree. The part which amazed me is that you have to hike a bit to get to this area. These folks pack all manner of coolers, toys, and grills to hang by the river.

We walked back to the subway station where we had begun our afternoon and came back to our apartment. As I cooked dinner, night began to fall and a thunderstorm came roaring in. The three of us collapsed into bed that night!

The Beauty of a Small Kitchen

Our kitchen is soooooooooo tiny. My friends who have fabulous gourmet kitchens (you know who you are) would be mortified! There is literally just enough room to turn around. The refrigerator is the size of a camping refrigerator with no freezer, just enough room for one ice cube tray. I am used to a rather Spartan kitchen, but at least I have my Le Creuset pans and a normal size fridge. Have I mentioned the half size sinks and built in drain boards? I was horrified the first few days, wondered how on earth I was going to produce good food in such a tiny place! But I have learned some tricks, am shopping on a day to day basis and cooking as well as I did on Potter Street if not better. I feel more efficient in this kitchen and definitely more methodical.

Shopping in the supermarket is a trip. I have always claimed that I could read a menu in any language, but shopping for food is a bit trickier. I know the main names – schwein for pork, rinder for beef and so forth. Some of the other terms are hard so I rely on horse sense and my eye. No major disasters yet but plenty of time spent in front of a counter trying to figure out what the hell was in front of me!

The stores don’t have the wide variety of choices that we have at home, but what they do have is quality. I have discovered mozzarella di buffalo in my local market for about $2.00 for a very generous portion. I slice it thinly, put it atop a bed of scrumptious arugula, drizzle some olive oil on it with a scattering of fresh basil and a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar and it’s a lovely lunch or appetizer for dinner. I love arugula and have been finding a million ways to use the beautiful bunches I have been buying almost daily. It’s wonderful plain with a good dressing of olive oil, lemon, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper yet you can also make a very tasty pesto from it. It’s simple. Put some garlic, a few anchovies, and some pine nuts in the bowl of a food processor (or in a mortar and pestle for those of you more labor-intensive types) and run it till it is a paste. Then add a bunch of arugula, about a half cup of really good extra virgin olive oil, some parmigiano reggiano, the juice of a lemon or two and some salt and pepper to taste. You can add some capers if you’d like some additional oomph! Puree it all and then toss it uncooked on your favorite pasta, with some additional parmigiano. It’s also quite good on a piece of grilled chicken or fish.

Right now I am braising some chicken thighs, shallots, peppers, and carrots in red wine and chicken stock. I seasoned them with a little bouquet garni I made up of fresh rosemary, basil, thyme, bay leaf and parsley. When they are finished they will be tender and falling off the bone. I am going to serve them atop some freshly mashed potatoes and make a salad with some really amazing lamb’s ear lettuce Chris picked up at the market. We’ll share a nice bottle of wine, and compare notes on our days.

The point is that you can turn out really wonderful food in the smallest of spaces. Cleaning is a snap!