Sunday, June 28, 2009

Breaking in the Barbecue

"We have fire!" Michael announced with triumph after checking on our new charcoal grill ten minutes following ignition. We are fans of the hardwood charcoal, so knew our interests in grilling did not lie on the gas side of the spectrum, but we were also wary of the fact that charcoal takes effort. Our new Weber grill successfully eliminated much of this effort: with a propane ignition, you need only arrange your coals and punch a button, then give it a quick check in five or ten minutes to make sure the coals are lit.

Friends joined us for a late lunch that stretched through the afternoon, sharing buffalo shrimp, herb bread sticks, and a mix of salads that included grilled mushrooms and chicken tossed with pesto.

"You're breaking in the barbecue with shrimp!" I told Michael as I put the first course on, knowing that shellfish would not be his choice for the best that grilled cuisine has to offer.

"Well, when Michael tells the story of how he broke in the grill, it'll be with prime rib instead of shrimp," Doug asserted. But we all know the truth - and today was all about the shrimp, chicken, and mushrooms - although I think Michael would happily forgo prime rib to eat grilled mushrooms.

Still, he couldn't resist throwing on a couple of burgers after we sat down to eat. "Are you sure this is enough?" he asked while eyeing the beautifully charred chicken thighs I was slicing.

Well, Michael did have his burger, but he was the only one - and there was still some chicken left over, so I can safely say there was enough. For now. On the menu for tomorrow night: buffalo chicken burgers! The grilling, it has just begun.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Signs of Summer

It's summer in Seattle! How do I know?
  • We can make sun tea on the porch - most days, at least.
  • I can hang the laundry to dry on the porch - again, on most days.
  • Michael even cleaned the porch to get it ready for summer shindigs (Hmm, many of these reasons seem to focus on the porch...)
  • We have a new barbeque (also located on the porch)! In fact, it arrived today, and I, with some help from our summer housemate, David, who moved in today with his wife, Joan, and daughter, Hazel, put it together tonight.
  • David, Joan, and Hazel have moved in for the summer!
  • I can leave my heavy coat behind and go in to work with my jean jacket instead.
  • The dog has new red toenails! No more of those winter booties in the house, she can now come straight in from the outside in her little plastic red nail caps (chosen because it would be difficult to easily notice should she lose a black nail cap) with no fear of scratching the floors (this, not the weather, was the real reason behind the house booties). Doesn't it just say summer when you see a dog out for an evening walk with crimson toes? Doesn't it? Anybody?
Well, red toenails or not, summer is here and we - including Lucy - are loving it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pie Crust Perfection

This Father's Day, I am thinking about one trait that I inherited from my father: a love of crust. Put just about anything edible in a good, flaky pastry crust, and we will eat it. Does it really get much better than golden, buttery layers that shatter under the gentle pressure of one's fork? I have my own definition of crazy: people who eat the pie, and then LEAVE THE CRUST BEHIND. When it's a truly good crust, this is nothing short of a travesty.

I experienced crust perfection today at the Volunteer Park Cafe. Stopping in for a late lunch, Michael ordered a chicken salad baguette, while I decided on the quiche of the day. Hey, it was salmon - salmon and crust! - how could I resist? The first bite was a mixture of silky smooth egg filling that melted in the mouth, a little salty tang from the salmon (my one complaint would be that the quiche could have used more salmon, but perhaps they kept it a little sparse to keep the price at the regular daily quiche level), and tender, flaky crust. I couldn't resist breaking off a piece of the extra thick edge of the crust, savoring a bite of pure buttery goodness.

But how does Volunteer Park Cafe do it? Crust is notoriously finicky, and while I would say that my mom is a masterful pie baker, I have to admit that the Cafe's crust beats hers, hands down (sorry, Mums). At home, I've managed to turn out some fabulous pie crusts, and some not so fabulous ones, but none quite compare with this.

I guess I'll just have to go back to Volunteer Park for more.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Talk Talk

It's Friday night, and here I am, sitting in front of the computer. Because I am BEAT. Huh. Who knew having house guests for weeks while also preparing for my first ever music history lecture at Europe Through the Back Door could be so exhausting and wonderful at the same time?

I was a little concerned about the lecture. What with being preoccupied with Ryan and company (after all, the guy was having open heart surgery, no small ordeal), I wondered if I hadn't put enough time into preparing my talk.

"I've never given a speech for a full hour! What if I don't have enough material?"

"What if someone asks me some semi-obscure question I don't know the answer to, like, 'When was Chopin born?' or 'What's the plot for Rigoletto?'"

"Was it really a good idea not to actually give a practice talk out loud? Can I really just stand up there and expect to wing it, just going off a brief outline?"

As it turns out, I could have talked for well over an hour, no one asked any obscure questions (or cared about any dates or opera plots), and I think I only looked at my outline once during the entire class. It's true: when you're passionate about a subject, getting to share that passion with a room full of strangers is actually quite exhilarating.

Now I'm already scheduled to give a talk about the Basque region in early August. Do I have a passion for pintxos, the Guggenheim, and beautiful beaches? Hmm... yeah, I think I can pull it off.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Life and How to Live It

It's been awhile. I'm back home, and have spent the past week back at work and dealing with my brother-in-law Ryan's open heart surgery. Last Wednesday he went in to receive a heart valve, and Michael, Ryan's wife, Lyndsay, and his mother-in-law, Devra, spent their days with him at the hospital, while I provided everyone with late dinners when they came back home each evening. Ryan was discharged from the hospital yesterday evening and is doing wonderfully, and Lyndsay and Devra are on their way back to Las Vegas, so we're moving on to a new stage in this process, and looking forward to a few more friends moving in with us for the summer soon.

In the meantime, I'm trying to prepare for my first class at Europe Through the Back Door this Thursday. Titled "Europe's Musical History Tour", it's free and open to the public. Sorry to shill for myself, but you can find more information online at: (Really, more than anything I think I need prayer that the class will go well - I've felt so distracted lately that I haven't done as much prep work as I would like.)

And that's about it for now. I've come to realize that even though I haven't been overwhelmingly busy since coming back home, just taking care of guests and having a loved one's surgery on the mind (even if it did go well) can wear one out a little bit. I still haven't gotten to look at my Europe photos! Soon, I promise. Well, after next weekend (yep, I'm busy till then). Watch for the new, photo-enhanced Europe blog posts to come!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Lange Nacht der Kirchen

It's my last night in Vienna, a night which happily coincides withe Lange Nacht der Kirchen - the Long Night of the Churches - which means that around 190 churches in Vienna alone are open until 1am tonight, offering ecumenical services, concerts of all kinds, and more. Before using up the last of the internet time I purchased earlier this week, I spent a few hours in Stephansdom, Vienna's great gothic cathedral, listening to a beautiful liturgical service followed by a full orchestra and choir performing a Haydn mass.

The church was packed, both with those searching for a spiritual experience and those simply wandering in to see what was happening. The wonder of sitting in a 500 year old church, surrounded by people of all walks of life, listening to the music reverberate through the cathedral, knowing that this was just one of many such gatherings throughout the city, was awe-inspiring. Europe is famed for its amazing, yet empty, churches, and this was a reminder that the church is not a building, but rather people. I don't know how many of the people out tonight come with any regularity to a church of any kind, but I hoped that everyone would walk away from tonight's experience with a feeling of peace and unity.

When I stepped outside Stephansdom, the streets were bustling. It's Friday night, and both young and old are out for dinner, drinks, or just a nighttime stroll. Across from the internet cafe, I could hear a rock band performing along the Danube Canal below. It's a different experience, but if I close my eyes I still find myself back in the cathedral while a man and woman sing a simple prayer to the accompaniment of a single guitar.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Breakfast of Dreams

In fewer than 34 hours I will be on a plane, probably eating bad airline food for breakfast. Fortunately, at this point in time, I still have one more Austrian breakfast to look forward to.

I love the breakfasts in German and Austrian hotels. Nutty whole grain rolls, rye bread, cheeses, yogurt, and eggs are always available, and any meal that features good bread and cheese prominently is fine by me. The Schweitzerhof, where we are staying in Vienna, offers the best breakfasts I have had during this entire trip, including fresh strawberries (mmm!), a basket of warm rolls on the table (outstanding!), and, rather than the typical pre-sliced cheese squares, a large selection of whole cheeses accompanied by a knife allowing one to slice off as much of any wedge as one would like. As is standard for such places, they bring the coffee in individual pots to each guest upon request, rather than using the automatic coffee machines that have unfortunately become common in many European countries.

Now, to some such a a breakfast may not sound like all that. But keep in mind that I have only listed my personal favorites. You will also find at the Schweitzerhof a variety of cold meats, muesli, cornflakes, Caprese salad, more fruit, scrambled eggs, assorted jams and honeys, and numerous spreads for topping a slice of bread, among other things. True, it doesn't have the same decadence as an American breakfast of pancakes, waffles, or sauage and bacon, but for a hotel buffet it far surpasses the sad continental breakfast of a packaged roll and bad coffee.

Hmm, I must admit my mouth is beginning to water. It's a good thing I'm still full from an excellent dinner, otherwise I think I'd have a hard time waiting until tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I'll dream of one last breakfast in Vienna. I hope they still have strawberries!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On the Beautiful... Green Danube?

Austria is an interesting mix of modern and traditional. Were the Captain and Maria still alive and living in their homeland, they would simply be Georg and Maria Trapp, minus the von. Noble titles, as I learned from our local guide on this morning's walking tour, are verboten in modern day Austria.

But despite losing two world wars and the Hapsburg Empire, tradition thrives in the form of such institutions as the Vienna Boys Choir and the Lipizzaner Stallions, both of which were begun by the Hapsburgs (whose descendants, by the way, are only welcome to live in Austria if they agree to stay out of politics). Were these brought back to bring in tourist money, or are they truly important to the Austrian identity? Today, along with two other guides, I watched the Lipizzaners at their morning exercises. The graceful horses cantered in time to the strains of the Blue Danube Waltz, a piece so strongly associated with Vienna it's practically a cliche.

This evening I took a long walk along the Danube Canal, which is, in fact, anything but blue at this moment in time. Murky green would be a more apt description, although the Danube itself can be blue on certain sunny summer days. Such days are not, however, typical for today's river.

But blue or not, the Danube makes a great backdrop for an evening outing. On a warm night like tonight, the Viennese are out walking, rollerblading, biking, playing soccer, and eating ice cream throughout their many parks. In fact, about half of the city consists of green spaces (and I'm not referring to the Danube this time), which doubtlessly played a large role in Vienna's being chosen as the world's most livable city last year.

And the clever Viennese have even found a way - almost - to go swimming in that murky Canal. How? Watch for a photo here when I return.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

They Say That All Good Things Must End Someday

The bus dropped us off in our final destination today: Vienna (aka Wien), where our hotel is only a five minute walk from Stephansplatz, the central square around Vienna's gothic cathedral. While waiting at a traffic light, I looked down from my window seat to the cars below, just in time to see the woman in the passenger's side light a cigarette while two children, presumably her own, sat in the back seat. Behind her, the man in the passenger seat of the next car was also enjoying a smoke, which apparently was all the encouragement the car's driver needed to pull out a cigarette of her own and use the pause in traffic to light up. Austria, I think you're still a long ways from the non-smoking laws that have been passed in Italy, Germany, and Paris in recent years.

But thankfully I usually manage to avoid the heavy smoke here, and today's arrival felt a little like a homecoming to me. Last May I spent two weeks in Vienna, studying German at a small institution for foreign students of all nationalities, ages, and abilities. It wasn't long enough, but even after only two weeks my German, which had steadily declined since college with a couple of brief upswings due to later trips back to Germany, had improved significantly. Two weeks is enough, however, to get a good feel for a city, and I definitely feel more at ease now.

Sadly, I only have three days left here before I fly back home to Seattle. While I can't wait to see Michael, I don't feel quite so enthusiastic about heading back to office on Monday, preparing for a house full of people (no joke - there may be as many as eight adults, one child, and one dog, staying at our place over one weekend), and leaving the traveling lifestyle behind. I could happily do this for months - something I can say honestly, as last year I did it for almost seven weeks without tiring.

In the meantime, though, I plan to enjoy these last few days in Vienna. I'll sip coffee at a cafe, admire how much work they done on cleaning the Stephansdom since last spring, eat some more chicken döners, and go walking in the gardens around the Belvedere Palace. On Friday I will even have the luxury of an entire day to myself, as the tour will have ended that morning (frankly, I doubt I'd have the time to make it out to Belvedere otherwise), before heading out for a night at the airport and a 7am Saturday flight.

It's been a good trip, overall. And Vienna, it's good to see you again.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Zen of Tea and Cesky Krumlov

On the tour evaluations we send to tour members after they return home, one of the questions we pose is, "Are there any 'wow' moments you'd like to tell us about?" I've noticed that those who travel more frequently are less likely to say they experienced a true "wow" moment, but rather talk about places or aspects of the tour that they particularly enjoyed.

Well, for me, today was a genuine "wow". Maybe it was the fact that the sun finally came out again after about a three day absence, maybe it was the fact that I had almost an entire afternoon free to do whatever I liked, or maybe it was just the stunning scenery, but Cesky Krumlov, a small Czech town not far from the Austrian border, really wowed me.

The day was picture perfect, and everyone was drinking it in. While Krumlov is definitely a tourist town, on a day like today how could anyone feel anything but happy and lighthearted? Even the woman slaving over a hot open flame wrapping pastry dough around metal rollers to cook and create tasty snacks for a never ending crowd was in good spirits. This was no day for museums, so I spent hours wandering the town streets, the riverbank, and the castle and gardens.

After all that walking, I was ready for a little break, so I stepped into Dobra Cajovna, the Good Tea House, where they offer both an amazing selection of loose leaf teas and water pipes. In the garden out back, tiny weathered crate tables with wire framed chairs sat at the edge of a quiet grassy courtyard.

Having leafed through the extensive menu of teas on offer, I chose a sampler of three Chinese varieties. Arriving together on wooden tray, my server explained how each tea should be correctly brewed using the clever little pots provided to steep the tea before tipping them sideways into the shallow teacups, thereby allowing the tea to drain into the cups while leaving the leaves behind for future use. With the large pot of water I was given, I was able to brew about ten cups of tea for myself.

I held a cup of tea between both hands and surveyed my surroundings and realized I felt supremely happy. Every so often, I have the feeling that I am living exactly in the moment, and I was struck by that sensation this afternoon. I sipped tea and read a page or two at a time from a German translation of an Agatha Christie novel, while overhead the birds sang and the occasional whiff of the sweet smoke from a single water pipe reached me. Heaven on earth, indeed.