Breakfast in Bressanone

Yes, we’re in the road again. This time in  the Italian town of Bressanone. We’re surrounded by mountains nestled in the Tirolean countryside. Breakfast just consisted of prosciutto, salami, mozzarella balls and a delicious soft boiled egg.

Mrs. NH has a stop planned for Trento today and we’re both confident in the prospect of pasta and red wine in our future. It’s my first time in Italy in the winter. This country never disappoints no matter the season.
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Snowshoeing in Luosto

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We’re still in Finland getting our winter activities on. Today was snowshoeing in the forest around the town of Luosto. The whole family did it for a couple hours and it was beautiful. Nothing gets more zen than standing in the middle of a silent, snowy forest having the peace broken by your four-year-old singing the Frozen theme.

The girls were actually total champs. We went up some fairly big hills with only a few granola bar breaks. Little NH2 also got to eat her first handfuls of fresh fallen snow.

Looks like Prague is in the 50s so it’ll be a shock to the system tomorrow.

Rovaniemi, Finland

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This place is bonkers. I just spent an a hour in and out of the sauna. No snow for me, just the shower.  I have German roots. I’m practical.

But look at those temps and the sunrise/sunset. Going to some sort of a show tonight and we’ll all be packing hot hands!

Istanbul Panorama

Istanbul Panorama - Hilton Bosphorus

Here’s a cool panorama I took off the balcony of my hotel room at the Hilton Bosphorus in Istanbul last month.  (I don’t have any idea how to make it bigger in the post.  Hints?)  I’ve sort of warmed to Istanbul over the past few visits and learned to embrace the chaos and sheer breadth of humanity in that town.  It helps that the food absolutely rocks and there are about a million places to explore.

Christmas Market Time

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Here is a picture NH2 and I co-drew after hitting the Christmas markets in Krakow, Poland. It’s a depiction of an ornament stand. Buying the red skull decoration was my idea. Hey, I live in a house full of girls.  I have to exert my influence when I can.

Thoughts from the Road

It is the end of another work day here in the Caucasus.  This time night is falling on the town of Yerevan, Armenia.  My ten night trip is drawing to an end and I have a few observations as the most alien of aliens in this far away land.

I hope foreign travel will always be a part of my life.  There’s no substitute for the way it invigorates one’s mind.  With the time spent in each town and the travel between, you really start to notice life as it goes on in front of your eyes.  As a traveler for business, I react to a coming trip much differently than I do when traveling with my family.

As I begin the first day of far-flung trips like this one, I always start with trepidation.  As someone who is responsible for a family and a livelihood, I always dwell a bit on the “what could go wrong” scenarios.  Before a trip I obsess over visas, daily itineraries and meeting times.  However, as soon as the wheels of the plane leave the ground, I surrender to the unknown that lies before me.  I guess it’s a coping mechanism.  I do my best to plan in advance and then when I finally get off the ground, I let the chips fall as they may.  Heck, there’s nothing much you can do about it when you’re thousands of miles away from your comfort zone.  Why bother worrying?

After everything falls into place and the meetings are done I’m always glad to return home.  The wanderlust of my youth is replaced with a deep desire to spend as much time as possible with my wife and kids.  I’m not conflicted about it.  Rather, the time away makes me appreciate what I know I’m thankful for every day.  Travel puts it all into perspective.  It’s quite a gift.

One Day in Tbilisi

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Have you ever taken an extended trip by yourself?  I do on a fairly regular basis for work.  I find myself to be an utterly terrible traveling partner.  Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, though.  I’m different when I’m with people.  I like having a good time with people.  It’s just that it’s not so easy to do that by yourself.  Especially in another country.  A far, far away country.

I woke up in Tbilisi today, already having planned out my day.  I was going to complete the following:

1) Walk a good part of Tbilisi.
2) Have a big damn meal of Georgian food.
3) Buy a postcard for my girls.
4) Ride the gondola up to the top of the hill and take pictures.
5) Buy and consume plenty of Georgian wine.

Scanning the ring of grassy peaks around the town, churches catch the eye as well as the shining monuments left by the Saakashvili administration.  The both loved and reviled wine bottles lying on the side of a hill.  Actually, they are a concert hall and convention center under construction.  With a new Prime Minister in power, some are calling for them to be torn down.  I call them perfectly Georgian.

I paid my three Lari ($2) for a round trip ticket for the gondola that begins just next to the wine bottles and ends at a silver statue of a maiden clutching a bowl in one hand and a sword in the other.  Her features are distinctly Georgian, in my view.  The bowl is raised high while the sword rests just under her waist.  Welcoming but intriguingly dangerous.

Back down at the bottom of the hill I walk through the old town of Tbilisi.  Wooden houses perched next to the river.  The thin wooden columns and picket-type fences that adorn the front seem strangely out of place in this rocky, sulfur aired capital city.  As is, they represent the warm, soft underbelly of a city that has seen countless invasions, sackings and fights regularly to keep its borders intact with varying degrees of success.  Out of place and at home in the same instant.

After looking in vain for the Saturday market that I was told way by the “dry bridge,” I decamp to a restaurant around 3:30 in the afternoon for some classic Georgian Food.  Cozy and hungry in the brick interior, I order veal ribs that sound incredible on the menu.  I neglected to ask the waiter if they were spicy.  Would he even have understood?

I have a 6 hour ride to Yerevan tomorrow morning.  The ribs arrive in a clay pot surrounded by the aroma of the sweetness of the meat and slightly suspended above a bubbling broth.  “I should have asked if they were spicy,” I think as the twinge of spice from the aroma reaches my nasal passages.  I dig in.  One bite and I knew that this dish would not be dinner.  As the meat pulled effortlessly away from the bone, the spice reached my tongue and my mental warning lights flashed.  A 6 hour car ride, across a border, with a belly full of Texas-worthy, spicy ribs?  Not this time.  Maybe next.

I made a strategic retreat to a crispy, flaky plate of traditional khachapuri.  Imagine cheesy bread mixed with saganaki and you have an appropriate approximation.  Three pieces went down with some sort of local Georgian beer and I was off to the wine store to taste the fruits of the land.  It wasn’t the food orgy I had hope for but caution seemed the order of the day considering the schedule for the next.

Wine aged in clay.  That is a typical Georgian method for wine-making.  I haven’t read up on it but I can only imagine that it is a process as old as the Caucuses themselves.  The flavor is completely different than any wine I have tasted.  They also have wines aged by “European methods” but I bought one of the classic wines for my cellar at home.  I’ve never tasted anything like it and likely never will again.

I walked home with a nice buzz adding a cottony warmth to the cool December air.  In front of the old Parliament building, workers were busy stacking the pieces of the Christmas trees that would soon adorn this meeting point of the city.  The denizens of Tbilisi passed buy in a blur of black.  Black shoes, black coats, black hair.  I had taken note of this before setting out and was dressed in the same fashion.  Granted, the graying of my brown hair may have been a tell-tale sign but the headphones in my ears kept all but the most tenacious of street hustlers from noticing me – and me them.

Now, back upstairs in the generic comfort of my hotel, I wish I could travel again out into the city.  Out into the dark streets that I only casually strolled during the daytime.  Into the bars and cafes that looked like they were furbished to match the beauty and mystery of this city.  Just past Freedom Square.  Where the lights glow a pale yellow and the stones of the sidewalks jut up at perilous angles.

This is a city worthy of a family visit.  A long weekend to show my wife and kids that there are no strollers on the street.  Here, mothers carry their children in their arms until they are old enough to walk.  When they can walk they do so.  A different currency and no spaghetti on the menu.  A city under siege.  A city pushing back with all of its might.  And at the same time completely beckoning and welcoming.  Completely different, completely foreign.  Completely Tbilisi.

Liberation Celebration 2012 – Prague, Czech Republic

When living overseas, there aren’t a ton of places for Americans to celebrate the greatness of our nation.  (Yes, I love my country.  Yes, I know it’s not in fashion.  Deal with it.)  So when the celebrations commemorating the liberation of the Czech Republic from the Nazi occupation came around, I jumped at the chance to partake.  I also took the opportunity to take Little NH1 along for a bit of a history lesson.

Five years may seem like a tender age to be learning about geopolitics of the past and present but I’d rather get my viewpoint in there before she gets a skewed version from some other source.  On our walk to the event, we talked in general terms about WWII and about what brave American soldiers did for the Czech people and much of Europe all of those years ago.  I explained that the Czechs are our allies (like our friends) and described Hitler and the Nazis (a big army led by a very, very bad man).  It seemed to click with her and I’m looking forward to hearing her version in a few days or weeks when I least expect it.  That’s how those things happen.

The celebration itself took place on a warm Friday morning in front of the US Embassy in Prague.  Though the US actually only liberated the country up through Plzen in the west, the celebration starts in Prague and continues around the country for the next week or two.  The street in front of the embassy was lined with restored motorcycles and Jeeps belonging to enthusiasts from around Europe.  A big band was assembled on the street and played patriotic songs and swing tunes of the era.

Little NH1 heard Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and appeared to be just about as taken by it as her dad.  An impromptu Czech couple danced to the music and the crowd mulled around admiring the vehicles and the glorious weather and celebrating the commemoration of the liberation of the Czech people.

As we walked away from the celebration to return her school, she told me, “Daddy, I’m glad we’re Americans.”

Mission accomplished.

Canned Cassoulet au Confit de Canard

Roasting duck is a pretty involved process.  I’ve done it once or twice in the past and have always been pretty happy with the results.  However, the process of rendering the fat off the bird is not for the faint of heart so if I can avoid it, I do.  I order duck out at restaurants often and when I’m in France I buy a lot of it in a can.  Yep, a can.

I buy big old honkin’ (pun intended) cans of six leg/thigh combos packed in enough duck fat to swim in.  The confited fowl work well in the oven by themselves or I’ve also used them to make a delicious sauce for pasta that includes a squeeze of fresh lemon.  Flavor city.  I have never eaten that meal without a short nap afterward.  It’s that good.

So imagine how intrigued I was during my last visit to France where I sampled duck cassoulet.  I’ll admit that I had never had cassoulet before but I’m glad I tried it.  It’s a good mix of beans, sausage, spices and tasty duck legs.  Little NH managed to steal most of the pieces of duck off my plate.  I was willing to share just to let her widen her gastronomic horizons.  Eating it at the base of a castle didn’t hurt my mood either.  Or the wine.  But I digress…

Fast forward to the last day in France where my wife told me to stop at a grocery store to stock up on wine and any other local goodies.  For me that means wine, foie gras, canned duck and, lo and behold, canned duck cassoulet.  Très bien! (Or, SCORE! in English.)  The cans ran about 15 euros if I recall correctly.  They’re big and they expire in 2015.  Not that they’ll last that long.

I opened one up last weekend and surveyed the goodness inside.  Beans, four duck legs and four sausages.  I quickly split it into four equal portions and froze two in ramekins for a bit later.  The flavor was better than anything from a can deserves to be.  The duck was perfectly prepared, the sausage was delicate and full of flavor while the beans and seasoning helped to balance the whole dish and act as a counterweight to the intense richness of the meats.

I paired it with a Chardonnay to cut some of the heaviness of the dish.  It would have worked just as well with a light French red.  I can also imagine doing this with a Duvel and having it work out very well.

So yes, great things do come in a can – and not just those hot tamales I used to eat back home.

Wanderlust

“Don’t you ever wanna just roll down that highway wherever it goes?”

“In my experience, wanderlust is vastly overrated.  Every time I’ve ever taken to the road it’s carried to someplace worse than I was before.”

The above quote is from Steve Earle’s novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive which I finished on my recent trip to New Delhi.  While my experience with wanderlust has been much more fortunate, I can completely understand the sentiment.  In the case of my trip to India, I think it applies.

Don’t get me wrong.  India was fascinating.  The food was good; the people were warm and really pleasant.  But India itself is a land of contradiction.  Gut-wrenchingly so.   The sheer fact that it is the largest democracy in the world with such staggering poverty is something I can’t reconcile in my head.

Of course, I would be wrong to judge the whole of India based on a week-long conference even with several trips outside of the hotel with folks who know the city.  And I must say, even in the traffic-choked, smog shrouded capital, the city hints of the treasures held in the rest of country.  The brilliance of color in the local dress and the intensely delicious flavors of Indian cuisine were enough to make this traveler curious about what lies outside of the dusty streets of the capital.

That said, I get the feeling I may never get the chance to experience the rest of this country.  Maybe I’m too old.  Maybe all the truffles and foie gras have made me timid, weak and flabby.  Or maybe, sometimes, wanderlust is indeed overrated.