customs

New neighbors clue me in to a German tradition I had never heard of…

Bill had to go out of town on business, so I’m spending most of the week alone. We got a bunch of Amazon deliveries yesterday– a new spool for the weed whacker, dog food for Noyzi, contact lenses for me, and two bottles of liqueurs that I was curious about trying. I thought I was finished answering the door when the bell rang again. I will admit, I was a little annoyed, mainly because I wasn’t wearing clothes that people outside of the household should see. But I answered the doorbell anyway…

It was our neighbors-to-be, whom we met on Friday night– mom, dad, and two young children. They were all dressed up, and the wife was holding a plate with what appeared to be a piece of bread on it. She said, in her heavily accented and somewhat broken English (which is still much better than my German any day), that yesterday was the first day of school, and it’s a tradition for sweet “Brezels” to be served for good luck. I think she also said that it was tradition to share the treat with a neighbor, and originally she had described what looked like a yeast bread as “cake”.

In ten years of living in Germany, this has never happened to me before, so I was unaware of the custom, but I was very moved by the gesture, nonetheless. Especially since they are going to be our neighbors as of next month! I did enjoy talking to them at our party the other day, mainly because she was born and raised in the Stuttgart area and had some rather candid opinions about her hometown that I found amusing. Let’s just say that she has the same impressions of the Swabian culture that a lot of people seem to have, and she prefers living in Hesse. Personally, I really like the Stuttgart area, but I have to agree that Hessians are stereotypically friendlier.

She presented the piece of “Brezel” to me on a lovely plate. I asked her what I should do with the plate when we were finished with it. She said I could return it when they move in next month. I am enjoying the Brezel bread for breakfast today, with my coffee. I thought it had raisins in it, too, but now that I’ve tasted it, I think they’re chocolate chips! Even better!

I posted about this surprise gift on Facebook, and my German friend– also hailing from Baden-Württemberg– was initially confused about the tradition herself. But then when I explained that the “cake” was actually Brezel, she wrote “alles klar”, and explained that it‘s customary for sweet pretzels (Brezels) to be made for the new school year, and passed out to the kids. Usually, one only sees them at New Year’s, when they are made fresh and passed out to family and friends for good luck and cohesion. However, in some areas, they also make them for St. Martin’s Day, or for the new school year, which starts in September in these parts.

Here’s a video about the New Year’s Pretzel, which I guess is the same as the pretzel handed out yesterday.

My friend asked if the bread was braided, and I wrote that I couldn’t tell, as it was only a generous sized piece of the Brezel, and not a whole one. But after a few minutes of research, she was able to find the answer for me. Now that I think about it, I believe our new neighbor’s husband’s family– who is also going to be our neighbor– is from a bit north of Wiesbaden. He brought some special beer to the party that can only be found in that area, and he and Bill bonded over it.

One of the things I like about living in Europe is that there are a lot of surprises. Most of the time, they’re pleasant surprises, like the time we lived in Jettingen and I got serenaded by three kids dressed up for Three Kings Day. They were collecting money for the Catholic church, and they were so adorable I couldn’t resist giving them some spare euros. There’s always something going on here, and so many traditions. We’re also heading into my favorite time of year, when the summer heat dissipates, and the weather gets cozy. I can stop wearing my t-shirts and Daisy Duke shorts (which I can’t pull off worth a damn), and wear pretty sweaters, scarves, and jewelry.

Hopefully, this new family will turn out to be actual friends. So far, so good. The wife even laughed at my jokes… especially when I was talking about having to leave Stuttgart early the first time and said, “I was PIIISSSED…” Come to think of it, I was probably also “pissed”, in the British sense of the word, when I was telling that story… But it’s a good sign that she wasn’t offended. 😉

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Sweet false hopes… but BrewDog saved the afternoon!

A few days ago, The New York Times ran an article about Khachapuri, a popular dish made of fresh bread, cheese, and egg, in Transcaucasian countries, to include Georgia and Armenia. I lived in Armenia for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and while I can’t say I ate a lot of Khachapuri when I lived there, I’ve come to appreciate the milder versions offered outside of the country. When I lived in Armenia, the dish was made with stinky cheese, which I could not abide. When it’s made with milder cheese, it’s more delicious to me.

Anyway, when I saw the article in The New York Times, I was reminded of the times Bill and I have enjoyed Georgian food. We went to Georgian restaurants in Stuttgart and Frankfurt, as well as several in Wroclaw, Poland. The Frankfurt restaurant was a bit of a disappointment, but the ones in Stuttgart and Poland were awesome. I did a Google search and learned that much to my shock, Wiesbaden has an Armenian restaurant unsurprisingly called Ararat. I looked them up, and it appeared that they were open today. So Bill and I ventured out there to see if it was a good place to eat.

The restaurant is located in an area of Wiesbaden that is known for its Eastern European population. That’s where one can visit the Mix Markt for eastern goodies. It’s in a residential area, and probably gets lots of locals as visitors. It also looks like they host a lot of parties and such, with live music.

We approached, and the door was open. There was a young guy on the phone and a young woman. The proprietor came out and said they were closed on Sundays, even though Google and their sign said they were supposed to be open every day.

I couldn’t resist, and asked in Armenian if they were from Armenia (Hayastan), since the place also advertises Russian food. Their faces lit up as they answered yes, in Armenian, and asked if I was Armenian, too. I actually answered “no” in German, then explained in Armenian that I know some Armenian. Then I said in English “I used to live there.” What can I say? It’s been 25 years since I last had to speak Armenian on a daily basis. Anyway, I could hear them commenting and chuckling as we walked away. We’ll have to call and find out when they have regular hours. I’d love to try their horovats… or shashlik, if they prefer.

We went back to Wiesbaden and parked at the Kurhaus, then walked into town. It didn’t look like anything exciting was happening, so we headed to BrewDog, where we ate a couple of months ago. I knew they’d be open, because they don’t take a pause. It was almost 2:00pm.

We drank a couple of beers and each tried something different from the last time we visited. I had a “Cluck Norris” sandwich, which was fried chicken breast with avocado, red onion, cajun mayo, and coriander with a side of fries. Bill had a roasted chicken sourdough bowl, which was basically a big salad with pieces of chicken and a piece of toasted sourdough bread. His dish also included chilli, chia seeds, and avocado.

We enjoyed the music, and I took a few new selfies, because I was wearing makeup and the lighting was good. Plus, since it wasn’t super hot outside, I wore something besides a t-shirt and shorts. While we were sitting there, a waifish blonde girl came in and dropped off a keychain with a note. She was quick as a flash, and we watched her go in and out in a matter of a minute or so, before she went across the street and did the same at a cafe. This isn’t the first time this has happened to us. I’m not sure where she was from, but I would guess it’s an eastern nation, and this is their way of collecting money. They try to sell little trinkets to sympathetic people who are trying to eat. I don’t think she had any luck.

Below are a few photos. I didn’t manage to get any of Ararat, although I’m sure we’ll try to visit again when they’re open– after we’ve called to verify. The owner had a very kind face and seemed super friendly. But I don’t mind that we went to BrewDog, either. That’s a fun place!

I really do hope we can try Ararat. I love finding new restaurants, especially when they offer different food than what is available everywhere! And I have missed Armenia… and Armenian people!

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Turning 50 in Antwerp… Part three

I got sort of a rude awakening at about 4am, on Saturday morning, as I tried to roll over. My left calf suddenly seized up in a hellacious cramp. I was still sort of asleep when it happened, so I just started whimpering pitifully. I wasn’t quite conscious enough to let out the scream that I really felt brewing. That cramp hurt like a mofo! But I was still kind of out of it, thanks to still being half asleep.

Bill woke up and asked me what was wrong. I somehow told him the back of my calf was cramping. He very calmly and gently reached over and put his hand on my spasming limb, which was healing enough. Then, he slowly forced me to stop pointing my toes. The cramp gradually went away and I was left amazed, and with a sore lump where the muscle bunched up. Yes, I know it would have gone away anyway, but there’s something about Bill’s touch that is very comforting to me. He’s very good at making my pain and discomfort vanish.

I managed to doze for a bit longer, until it was time to get up and face the day. We had told the night receptionist that we’d have breakfast at 8:00am. Breakfast at De Witte Lelie does not come with the room, and costs 30 euros a person. I suppose it’s not mandatory to have breakfast there, since the hotel is so close to the old town, but we found it convenient. The first morning, we ate outside, since it was sunny and warm outside. The manager, an Australian lady, brought out a basket of bread, fresh pressed coffee, and a bottle of fresh squeezed orange juice. I was delighted by the orange juice. That’s one thing I’ve noticed in Belgium and the Netherlands; they have great orange juice. Even if you get it at the gas station, it’s likely to be fresh!

Aside from the bread and juice, there’s also a small buffet with everything from Belgian cheeses to vegan charcuterie. I helped myself to some smoked salmon and avocado, and Bill had a ginger shot. We also had eggs and bacon, although we only did that on the first day, since it was a lot of food that neither of us needed.

As usual, we didn’t have any big plans. We almost never plan specific activities on our trips. Our style is more about going places and letting stuff happen. There are exceptions, of course. When we were in Florence a couple of months ago, we did plan to visit the Uffizi ahead of time. That was necessary, because of COVID and the number of people who want to go to the art gallery. But we didn’t have big plans for Antwerp. It didn’t find it to be the kind of place that requires a lot of planning.

We started out by heading toward the Grote Markt, which is the main attraction in Antwerp. We saw the couple who run the Brewers’ Kitchen, who were recovering from Friday night! The chef told us that he was born and raised in Antwerp and offered some tips on how to see the city. I was especially glad we stopped in to his restaurant on Friday.

Before we had a chance to explore the Grote Markt, we stopped at the Handschoenmarkt, which is where an adorable statue of a boy and his dog are located. I didn’t know anything about the 19th century novel, A Dog of Flanders, which is the heartwarming and tragic story about a little boy named Nello and his dog, Patrasche. The story, which was written by English author, Marie Louise de la Ramée, is well-known, especially in Japan, so the powers that be commissioned a statue to please tourists. The statue was created by Batiste Vermeulen (‘Tist’) and is absolutely adorable.

We went into Cathedral of our Lady, which is a huge, beautiful church in the middle of the city that dates from 1352 (with earlier churches dating from even earlier), but was consecrated in 1521. If one isn’t a child under 18 or a resident of Antwerp, there is a 12 euro charge to visit this church. We didn’t mind paying, though, since the Cathedral of our Lady is full of beautiful art, and is very much akin to a museum. We spent some time walking around, taking in the tremendous beauty of the vast cathedral itself, and the wonderful paintings and sculptures within it. We also visited the crypt, where we could see examples of the tombs buried under the church. Burials were allowed within the church until the 18th century, so as you walk through the cavernous interior, you are passing graves of people who died many years ago.

After we walked through the cathedral, we decided to visit the bistro. Yes, this church has an actual bistro, where you can get coffee, cake, and beer. We initially went in there to use the restroom (very handy), but later came back to try the excellent beer out in the courtyard.

On Saturday, we also made our way to the Scheldt River, which flows through northern France, western Belgium, and the southwestern part of the Netherlands. I wouldn’t say the Scheldt River is a particularly beautiful body of water, but it is what makes Antwerp an important port city in Europe. Next to the river is a huge ferris wheel called The Big View. I didn’t know this at the time, but our ride on the ferris wheel was Bill’s very first, ever! He’s going to be 58 years old next month, and he just now took a ride on a ferris wheel. We got three turns, which allowed us to mug for photos and get pictures of the Steenplein (Stone Square).

Bill says he had never been on a ferris wheel before Saturday, because he’s afraid of heights. He probably felt okay on the wheel in Antwerp, though, because it was completely enclosed. I wished we had an open car so I could get better photos, but this is probably a year round attraction. I’m sure enclosing it makes it usable in bad/cold weather. After we got off, Bill said he’d do it again. It always amazes me the things Bill is doing for the first time with me.

It turned out on Saturday, there was some kind of festival going on in the Grote Markt. It was quite the blowout. When we were passing at one point, an opera singer with an absolutely beautiful voice serenaded everyone. She was dressed in shorts and a short sleeved blouse, enchanting everyone with her dulcet vocals. After her first song, she was inexplicably joined by a beatboxer, who was also pretty good… although personally, I preferred her solo performance. I got some video of her singing, which I added to my first post about Antwerp. It made me cry. We also saw a guy balancing three beers on his head while riding a bike!

By the time the ferris wheel ride was finished, it was time to look for lunch. More on that in the next part, since this post is loaded with photos!

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Food and wine in Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein… part nine

Figuring out Florence…

After I bought my new scarf, which was carefully packaged for me by the stylish shopkeeper, Bill and I took a walk over the Ponte Vecchio and crossed the Arno. Whenever I look at the Arno River, I want to break into “O Mio Babbino Caro” by Giacomo Puccini. I learned that song when I studied voice years ago. I’m probably too old for it, now… my “beloved daddy” has been dead for several years now. But when I was in my 20s, it was a good song for me. I did even better, though, with Puccini’s “Musetta’s Waltz”. Being in Italy makes me want to break out in song!

The Ponte Vecchio is a medieval stone bridge. It’s got many shops along it. At this writing, most of the tenants on Ponte Vecchio are jewelers. It was very crowded when we walked across, and God knows I don’t need any more jewelry, so we just walked across and milled around for a little while on the southern side of the river. Last time we were in Florence, circa 2013, we explored more on this side of the Arno, even visiting a beautiful church there and sitting in a park, where I observed several local seniors gathering to chat. I’m nine years older now, and have fewer spoons for walking, so we walked a couple of blocks and came back across the bridge to look for lunch.

I took this in 2013.

I usually follow my nose when I go looking for food in different cities. My nose rarely lets me down. Such was the case when we found Ristorante Il Paiolo, not too far from the heart of Florence. An affable waiter who laughed at my jokes seated us at a table. I noticed there were models of the Bistecca alla Florentina in a case by the entrance. Several people ordered that during our visit, and I must admit, it smelled fantastic. But since we knew we were going to have that on Friday night, after meeting up with our wine tour, Bill and I deliberately made other choices for lunch. I went with chopped wild boar and polenta (Cinghiale alla maremmana e polenta). Bill ordered beef with cannellini beans. We paired our dishes with a lovely bottle of wine… one of many on our trip.

After lunch, we walked around more to burn off lunch. I took more photos and a video. Sadly, this time we didn’t run into Piotr Tomaszewski, a very talented busker we found during our last visit. He is easily found on YouTube. We bought his beautiful CDs in 2013, which I still love listening to now. Instead, we found this guy…

Not very exciting…
I didn’t make this video, but this is Piotr Tomaszewski, a talented busker we saw last time in Florence. I understand he was based there for several years. I don’t know if he still is. His music made me cry.