Oaxaca, Mexico: Food

Ancho Chile Relleno

So, the secret destination I mentioned earlier was Oaxaca (say “wah-HOCK-ah”), Mexico. I love this city! I had visited once 15 years ago and always dreamed of going back.

The capital city of the state of Oaxaca, it’s like a jewel-box deep in heart of the southern mountains of Mexico, full of stunning architecture, intricate handicrafts, and oh yes, fantastic food.

The top photo was my first meal there, an ancho chile relleno next to plaintain mash with Oaxacan cheese. Surprisingly, it was actually a lot prettier than it was flavorful, but I enjoyed trying it anyway.

Below are the appetizers from that night, including, from the back of the slate platter, cheese, guacamole, and chapulinas. Chapulinas are a Oaxacan specialty—roasted grasshoppers!

Chapulinas

Our Mexican friends told us that if you eat one, it means you get to come back to Oaxaca. It would be a lie to say they’re my favorite dish, but I was super glad I DID eat one 15 years ago. So glad, in fact, that I ate several more, hoping I will for sure get to visit again.

Below you see chiles drying at a restaurant where we ate lunch. The set up was unusual—you walk through the kitchen area up to the roof to eat. Sadly I didn’t take pics of the wonderful chicken red mole enchiladas I had.

Mole is a type of sauce involving many ingredients, including cocoa, which was first cultivated in ancient Mesoamerica. There are many different kinds of mole, and they’re not at all sweet, so don’t worry, it’s not at all like eating candy on your meat.

From the rooftop of the lunch restaurant, there’s a view of the historic Santo Domingo church, and we had great seats to see a traditional wedding celebration going out of the church, complete with dancers, costumes, and these enormous puppets that lead the way to the reception.

Chiles

Lastly, here’s a photo (from the same location) of Caldo de Piedra, or “Stone Soup.” I couldn’t actually eat it, since I can’t do shellfish, but it was fascinating to watch our chef cook it, tableside.

The rocks were heated to such a high degree that when they were placed in the bowls of raw food (shellfish and broth, veggies), the liquid immediately boiled like mad. After a few moments, the liquid cooled a bit, and the chef removed the first stones and added a second hot stone to each bowl.

Caldo de Piedra

If you look closely, you can see the beautiful handcarving on the bowls, which are made of what I gather is a kind of gourd.

Delicious foods not pictured: duck tacos, Oaxacan tamales (wrapped in banana leaves), hot chocolate, and eggs smothered in fantastic sauces. Breakfast was not to be missed.

More on Oaxaca to come. Hope you have a great weekend. It’s like 75 degrees here today. I can’t believe it’s December!

Sorting and Stockpiling

We’re getting closer to our move date, and we’re going through our stuff but also thinking about (clinging to?) the things we’ll miss. I say “we” but maybe it’s just me doing the clinging.

I find it funny that when I left the U.S., I was stockpiling American things I feared I wouldn’t be able to get in Germany: Trader Joe’s salsa, children’s OTC medications, inexpensive winter gear. Now I have the same frantic hoarding tendencies but for German things, as if somehow I can take my memories with me only if I find enough items to hold them in.

We’re really trying to get rid of things, not collect things, but if I could stockpile all I wanted, here’s a list of some favorites:

  • Alnatura dark chocolate from DM—best cheap chocolate ever
  • Ritter Sport dark chocolate with hazelnuts (yes, they do have it in the U.S. but I hear it’s not the same)
  • Weleda bath and beauty products
  • Alnatura lemongrass soap
  • Whole grain spelt (dinkel) bread
  • Ready-to-eat mango lassis from the refrigerator aisle
  • Fresh apricots (they just don’t grow these in the southeastern US, and the ones you can get from California are mushy by the time they get to you)
  • Fleur de sel—best salt ever—yeah, it’s French, but it’s easy to get here
  • Wine—goes without saying
  • Cheap vintage linens from the thrift store (okay, I may have collected a few of these, but reports have been widely exaggerated)
  • Nutella collectible football glasses
  • Wooden toys—any German toys, really
  • Absolutely everything from the Waldorf basar
  • Kids’ rain pants
  • Cheese—so cheap and delicious here—a mozza ball costs as little as, I kid you not, 50 cents!
  • Rooibos caramel tea
  • Burda Style magazine—the awesomest sewing mag ever
  • Homeopathic German medicine—oh yeah! It really works.
  • The unbelievably thick walls, high ceilings, and beautiful doors of our apartment
  • Chocolate croissants baked just a few steps from our flat

But most of all I’d like to stockpile the things that couldn’t be packed up, even if we had the space:

  • Bike rides through the forest
  • Coffee and running and lunch dates with friends
  • Sunny afternoons in the kindergarten garden
  • The smell of freshly baked bread from the downstairs bakery
  • Kind neighbors
  • My kids’ knowledge of German

For the last two plus years I’ve sought out English reading material wherever I could, and now suddenly I’m desperate to have some German books for the kids. I just got Richard Scarry’s Mein allerschönstes Wörterbuch (it’s similar to his other books but with German and English labels). Also ordered Das grosse Liederbuch (The Big Song Book, illustrated by Tomi Ungerer) on the advice of a friend, hoping we might be able to preserve some of the folk songs our son has learned in German kindergarten.

The probability of him losing his near-native accent is the thought that stings the most.

But I won’t dwell on that now. Okay, off to get some errands done and hopefully, just a tiny bit more writing before the clock strikes midnight. Have a good Monday.

Inspired by Granada

Granada really captured my imagination, and I’m not the first. The city’s ancient Moorish palace, the Alhambra, was brought to worldwide attention by American author Washington Irving, who stayed there briefly in 1829. Yes, that’s Washington Irving of Sleepy Hollow fame. Read more about the Alhambra’s history, starting in the 9th century, here.

After his visit to Granada, Irving wrote Tales of the Alhambra, which sparked interest in the beautiful, crumbling building complex. Fifty years later (it wasn’t the age of the internet, after all), the movement to restore the Alhambra had begun.

Nice to hear about an American writer doing something good abroad!

It’s easy to see why he was so inspired. I found myself wanting to move into the Alhambra. While the castles in northern Europe are impressive in their own right, the Moorish palace made me want to hang out on a chaise lounge, write a novel, and throw a party when the sun went down.

A good spot for a window seat, no?

This was one of my favorite views of the Alhambra (there in the distance). This tower in the foreground, we discovered, is an 11th century minaret, the only remains of a mosque that was destroyed after Isabella and Ferdinand’s army conquered Granada. As in many places, a church was built right where the mosque stood.

It seems to be fairly common that one minaret was left when a mosque was destroyed (for instance, you see it also at Seville’s cathedral). If anyone knows more about the story behind that, I’d be interested to know.

As one of the last holdouts of the Moors, the whole city of Granada has a very strong Moorish influence. The ancient Muslim Albayzin quarter is particularly fascinating, with its maze-like cobbled paths and tangle of ancient white-stone buildings. And as I mentioned before, the food was great!

I threw some more Spain pictures up on my flickr gallery, so hop over there if you like. I went gaga over the tilework at the Alhambra and at the palace in Seville, the Alcazar. Sooo gorgeous! And I kept thinking: quilts, quilts, quilts!  So many ideas, so little time.

Travel Tip: if you’re interested in seeing the Alhambra, make sure you book tickets well in advance via the Alhambra website. We did book ahead but we still had some difficulty getting them—-luckily my husband’s Spanish saved us, but the process needs some working out of kinks. Also, take your smart phone—there’s a free app you can download on site. We didn’t bring ours so didn’t get to try it.

Next up you’ll be hearing from author Louise Hawes about using dreams in your writing. Can’t wait!

Flamenco in Mijas, Spain

On our recent trip through Andalusia, Mijas (“MEE-haass”) was a highlight. One of the lovely white towns (so-called because of their white buildings) Mijas has great food, donkey and horse rides, and best of all, a Wednesday noontime flamenco performance.

The electricity of flamenco is contagious. These dancers and musicians are true artists. If we’d spent any more time in Spain, I seriously would’ve had to sign up for flamenco lessons (you can, by the way, do this). The performance made me want to hop up and do some serious DANCING!

Here’s a view of Mijas from the hill—-you can see why it’s called a “white town.”

On another day we happened upon the flamenco floor of a department store. “Happened upon”—who am I kidding? Once I heard there was such a thing as a “flamenco department” I was making a beeline. Ahhh….heaven!

Talk about serious artistry. All handmade. One of these babies will set you back around 500 euros or more. I couldn’t QUITE justify the money. But we did get a cheapo version for Little Miss.

I think I’ve got to learn some flamenco sewing techniques now. So far the internet hasn’t been all that helpful, so shout if you know any tricks.

More on Spain to come. For more on our travels around Europe, just click on the “Travel” category on the right.

Currently reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a recommendation from my husband. I’m still not a total e-book lover, but it WAS awesome to be able to pull up The Sun Also Rises,W. Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, and The Big House by Carolyn Coman while in Spain. I love traveling by book and car/plane at the same time.

Hope you have a great weekend!

That Berlin Buzz

What a hip, creative vibe Berlin has. Like a really smooth espresso—cranks you up but doesn’t make you jumpy.

I was there in July and wished I could bottle the buzz and take it with me. It made me want to write, paint, photograph, disco!

Twenty years after the reunion of East and West Germany, Berlin is still re-inventing itself. It’s bustling with construction: here’s a photo taken from the Hauptbahnhof (main train station), with a view of all the cranes going outside it:

One of my favorite spots this visit was the dome of the Reichstag, the home of the German parliament (the first shot above is looking up through the open dome).

The original dome, which was destroyed during World War II, was also glass and steel (see below), but the current one (below the original) looks like something from The Phantom Menace.

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File:Berlin reichstag west panorama 2.jpg

Look inside the dome in the next photo. It’s actually open to the elements, so snow and rain enter the center column (the part that looks like a mirrored tornado) and get recycled.

The glass dome is meant to be symbolic of transparency in the present-day German government. But it also struck me as such a symbol of the city and of modern Germany itself. The über-eco space-age cupola joined with the damaged historic building feels like what Berlin is all about.

The New York Times had a debate recently about where young Hemingway would go to live in 2011. Paris again? London? Two debaters (of five or so) voted for Berlin, and I’d cast my vote for Berlin, too. It’s a magnet for creatives these days in part because it’s much more affordable than other big cities.

Holly Becker of decor8 recently wrote a post about creatives living in Berlin. She highlights a German website, Freunde von Freunden that gives sneak peeks into artists’ homes.

For some fascinating photography of historic Berlin (and other European) sites, check out this post by annekata post here. She highlights the work of two photographers who specialize in merging war-time and modern photographs. The effect is mind-blowing.

(Sadly, annekata is no longer blogging, but she’s left up her posts, which are chock-full of inspiration).

Below is a shot from an East Berlin neighborhood where we visited an old family friend. The whole place was hopping with energy and a sense of humor.

For everyone who’s been wondering where I’ve been, I’m back. We’ve done lots of traveling this summer, and I hope to share some more about that soon. The kids are both back in school as of today.

If you enjoyed this post and want to read more about my travels within Germany, check out these posts:

Chillin’ at the North Sea

Castle Storming in the Mosel Valley

Christmas Magic at Bueckeburg Castle

Day Trip from Hannover: Celle

For other travels in Europe, click on the “Travel” category.

*The two photos of the exterior of the Reichstag are from wikipedia.

8 Tips for Traveling with Little Ones in Europe

Tip Number 1: Leave them at home!

For real. Unless you have a few weeks on your hands, think about it. Do you really want to drag a jet-lagged toddler to the hours-long line at the museum you’ve always dreamed of visiting? 

But you have your reasons, you say, and so do we. Since we’re living here in Europe for awhile, when we go on vacation, it’s usually on this continent. And it’s been great fun to explore  as a family, although a bit different from how we’d do it as a couple.

On to the real tips. These are a few things we’ve learned to help maximize the fun and minimize the stress. Maybe these ideas will help you.

1) Consider the countryside or small towns over big cities

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not avoiding the biggest cities altogether, but in general we find it’s much easier to navigate smaller towns with small kids. The pace of life is a bit slower, and people seem more understanding of children. It’s easier to find your way around, which makes everything else a little less stressful. And of course, there are fewer crowds.

2) Rent an apartment, or look ahead for family rooms or suites

Can you sleep in the same room with your darlings? Well, lucky you. We can’t. Luckily, there are options for light sleepers like us. We’ve done a lot of house/ cottage/ apartment rentals. These allow more space for sleeping as well as cooking facilities and often laundry facilities, too. This is usually more affordable than staying in hotels, too.

It does take more work to find a rental than to find a well-known hotel. For me, the benefits are worth it. We have had success with the following websites:

Home Away

This by far my favorite website when it comes to finding rentals because it’s well-designed, easy to use, and infinitely searchable. Covers every country all across the globe. In most cases, you rent directly from the owner.

National Gite Registry

This site used to have an English version, but currently I can’t find it to save my life—maybe it was removed? If you’re looking to rent in France, especially on a farm or vineyard, this site has everything. Google translate, if not completely fluent, is your friend.

Rent-a-Villa in Tuscany

This site/ agency is easy to use and designed for the English-speaking traveler in mind. An added bonus: you can order meals to be cooked in your villa—-so convenient with the kids.

I also hear good things about interchalet.co.uk. It’s another well-designed site, but I haven’t rented through it personally.

Rental options are often but not always limited to rental by the week. If you can’t find an option for a shorter stay, or you don’t need separate rooms, or you want a more full-service experience, look for “family rooms.” Hotels usually have limited numbers of these, so it helps to think ahead.

3) Book a fun place to hang out

Traveling with small children usually means you’ll spend some time sitting around while your kids sleep, whether for naps or at bedtime. We’ve found we feel a lot less trapped if we book a place that isn’t just a crash pad. If we can enjoy a view or sit on a pretty porch or balcony, we don’t mind (so much) having to settle in early for the night. Add a glass of wine and good book and you’re all set.

4) Plan ahead

We’ve found in general here that you’re expected to book anything (hotels, restaurants, museums) well in advance, and you might miss out if you don’t. This is not the land of the last minute. We recently booked a place two months in advance and were told it was a “last-minute” reservation. You’ll have a LOT better luck with restaurants if you make reservations a day or more ahead. Also, many popular attractions have a book-ahead option. You can reserve a time slot and save hours of line-waiting. Totally worth it.

While you’re thinking ahead, try getting the kids interested in the history or artwork of a place before your travel. It goes a long way in keeping their attention. Look for children’s books related to the city or country you’re visiting.

5) Beware safety issues

As an American, I was used to having lots of rules telling me where I could and couldn’t take my kids. You don’t find that much here. Often it’s nice, because you can make up your own mind. However, there have been times when we took our littlest one on an adventure that, in retrospect, probably wasn’t the best idea for him (i.e. high places with little in the way of railing). So, check things out before you climb because chances are, no one is going to stop you from doing something risky.

6) Research the local restaurant culture

Every country seems to be different on the whole restaurant scene, and it helps to know what to expect. In our year in Europe, we’ve found only one restaurant that provides crayons and a coloring page. Definitely bring your own. Some restaurants will have a children’s menu, but many don’t. We’ve gotten good at figuring out how to adapt a menu for children. Most restaurants will work with you on that.

While we’ve found establishments to be pretty tolerant of children, many just aren’t adapted for the under five set. In France and Italy, for instance, we found no restaurants that opened for dinner before 7:30 p.m., and a lot opened even later.

Also in France, you are expected, almost required (by the way the menu is set up) to order four or more courses. It’s fabulous, but it’s a long time to entertain your little ones while you try to enjoy the food. On our vacations we’ve done a lot of eating out for lunch and then making a light supper at our apartment.

Always make reservations. The best places get filled up quickly, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stroll in and find a table. Unlike American restaurants, European ones often only take one seating per table per night, so once they’re all reserved, that’s the end of them. The nice part is that once you have a table, you can take as long as you like.

In addition to restaurants, make sure to visit the produce markets, which are a wonderful way to enjoy the local food with the kids along.

7) Together, learn (at least) the politeness words in the language of your host country

Not only is it fun, and, you know, polite, but words like “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “please” go a long way when your kids are laughing too loudly or diving under the table at a nice restaurant.

8 ) Think outside the tourist attraction

That museum you’ve always wanted to see? It may be a little hard to do with your little ones. Maybe you’ll want to swap off kid-duty with your spouse. Or maybe you’ll want to try what we do, which is to look for attractions that have an interesting outside component. This doesn’t mean limiting yourself to playgrounds and amusement parks, though those can be fun, too.

Many historic sights and even museums have outside grounds that are just as fabulous as the inside, if not more. Having a little space to run around can make all the difference between a great time or a stressful day.

Have fun planning your trip! If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read other posts about places we’ve enjoyed as a family in Europe:

Germany:

Hamburg, Celle, Mosel Valley, North Sea, Bueckeburg Castle

The Netherlands:

In and Around Amsterdam

Italy:  Siena, Pisa, Volterra

Lady Madonna, Baby at Your Breast

 

Madonna del’latte, Ambrogio Lorenzetti c. 1330
 

I really enjoyed the museums in Siena in part because they were small enough to manage with children, and not so packed. But the best part was their troves of early Renaissance art. I like the early stuff because it’s not so all-fired perfect like the late Renaissance art. During the early period, artists had figured out a few things about perspective, but they hadn’t yet cracked the whole code. 

The art from the early period also seems brighter and more colorful than the later Renaissance. I find myself relating to it because it’s more like what I’d want to create myself. Perfection in artwork doesn’t really interest me that much, probably because I’m living after the invention of photography. So the beautiful but imperfect early Renaissance paintings (as well as pre-Renaissance works) have an almost modern feel to me.

Disclaimer: this isn’t an all that scholarly perspective, so bear that in mind.

St. Bernardino Preaching, by Sano di Pietro (above)—This scene takes place in the same Piazza del Campo from my previous post. I couldn’t find a better image of it, but in real life the colors are much brighter. The building behind St. Bernardino is the color of papaya flesh. 

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(detail from The Siege of the Castle of Montemassi, by Simone Martini)

The image above is just a tiny bit of a beautiful and famous painting. You can see the artist has made an attempt to show the dimensionality of the castle, but it’s still a bit flat, with an almost cubist feeling. I love it.

Our favorite pieces in the museum were the nursing Madonnas. I had never seen anything like them and was so moved by their tenderness. Whoever thought of Mary breastfeeding Jesus? Evidently plenty of artists have, but I hadn’t. I found the images so intimate, so human. So different from some other Madonnas where she’s looking away from baby Jesus, holding him like she’s not sure whose kid this is but would someone please take him?

Evidently there are a lot of these lactating Madonnas from 14th century Tuscany. According to Wikipedia,  they were “something of a visual revolution for the theology of the time, compared to the Queen of Heaven depictions.”

Madonna del latte, Paolo di Giovanni Fei

“During the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, a decree against nudity was issued, and the use of the Madonna Lactans iconography began to fade away.”

Sigh. At least they didn’t burn them.

The coolest thing about seeing these paintings was how much my small children responded to them. I think the idea of baby Jesus being so like themselves, so like other babies they know, excited them.

The images above came from wikipedia and wikimedia. They are in the public domain, and the paintings themselves all reside in Siena.

p.s. My post about Pisa was featured on Freshly Pressed (the wordpress front page roundup) this week, so this little blog got a lot of new traffic. Welcome, new subscribers!