We got our first Ararat Box…

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Several weeks ago, I was hanging out on Facebook when an Armenian guy I follow posted about ordering Ararat Boxes for his staff as Christmas gifts. He described the boxes as being full of yummy treats from Armenia, as well as a great fundraiser for good causes benefiting Armenia. Since I spent two years living in the Republic of Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was interested in finding out more about Ararat Boxes.

So what are Ararat Boxes? They are boxes filled with snacks, stickers, and other goodies made in Armenia. The official Web site says that they put in 18-20 different items, everything from candy to teas and coffees. Every month is different and you don’t know what you’ll get. You can purchase the boxes once, or do a monthly subscription. When I showed the Web site to Bill, he decided he wanted to try it. He bought a three month subscription for the 2kg box ($49.95 for a single box, less if you subscribe). There’s also a 1kg box available that costs a bit less ($29.95). Shipping is available worldwide, and costs $15 for the big box and $10 for the small one. You can pay easily on the Web site, which calculates everything for you. The boxes come directly from Yerevan, Armenia, and come covered in bubble wrap, adorned with Armenian stamps and script that looks like a bunch of coat hooks.

An ad for the Ararat Box.

This project was created by Renderfrost, which is a large IT company based in Armenia. Renderfrost has over 10 million worldwide users and is one of the biggest video platforms on the planet. It currently employs 80 people. Last year, people from Renderfrost came up with the idea for Ararat Box as a way to support small businesses in Armenia. They traveled around the country, visited 150 different businesses, tasted over 1000 products, and selected items that would be featured in the box. Each month, different vendors are featured, which means the boxes change. Ararat Box is also involved in charities, and donated 400 boxes to children in Artsakh, whose fathers are currently engaged with the military on the front lines of Nagorno-Karabakh.

We received the January edition of the box yesterday. It got hung up in Belarus for some time, waiting at the customs office. Here are a few photos.

Of course, there’s no wine or brandy in these boxes… bummer! Those are my favorite Armenian exports of all. But I was pretty heartened to see all of these cool Armenian snacks. When I lived in Armenia, one of my side projects was using Armenian produce to create recipes and potential products. I worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on that, and they even gave me a stovetop electric oven to use, which was a pretty big deal. Most of us had to rely on propane stoves and makeshift ovens crafted from big pots and kerosene heaters. You get pretty innovative when you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer in a developing country where there is no reliable electricity or running water. Things have gotten much better since the 90s, though.

A review in Armenian. I must admit I only understand a little of this these days.

I remember that back in the 1990s, most of the snacks available in Armenia came from Turkey or Iran, unless you wanted to buy something local at the shuka. It was very possible, for instance, to buy beautiful local fruits. Armenia had some of the most gorgeous produce I have ever seen. Or you could buy sunflower seeds or dried fruits and nuts. But chips and candy and the like were often sourced from other places. Although it was interesting to see the kinds of products you could find in Yerevan in the 90s, (I once found a package of Chips Deluxe cookies priced at the AMD equivalent of $7), it’s good that Armenia now has its own products.

Each box comes with a handy guide in English, explaining about the products and the best ways to enjoy them. Bill and I have so far tried a few of the snacks, all of which are of good quality. We look forward to seeing what will come in the next two boxes. I have a feeling we could extend the subscription!

Although I can’t deny that I was ready to leave Armenia in 1997, it will always have a piece of my heart. Living there changed my life for the better and really opened my eyes to the world. I still have friends from Armenia, as well as so many memories. It’s great that I can share the culture with Bill and we can enjoy these products together. And, on a more personal note, it really does make me excited to see the place where I did my service obviously improving in leaps and bounds. It makes me feel like I really did contribute something by going there and bearing witness to how things once were, compared to how they are today.

Edited to add… We just got our February box. Yes, it arrived just one day after the January box. We are now flush with Armenian snacks. Here are a few more photos!

My online shopping life… or, the pandemic has made us learn new things.

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It’s hard to believe that just a year ago, Bill and I were preparing to journey to France to see my friends Audra and Cyril and celebrate Christmas with them and their family. This year, we don’t go anywhere. I’m serious. I haven’t left our neighborhood in over two months. It’s getting old.

But I’m trying to keep my spirits up. The other day, I ordered chocolates from Neuhaus. I was a victim of Facebook advertising, which kept showing me pictures of Belgian chocolate. Then I remembered that once upon a time, when I was still a working woman, I actually used to sell Neuhaus chocolates.

I worked at a place called Henry Street Chocolatier, which was located in Williamsburg, Virginia. They sold high end chocolates from Neuhaus and Joseph Schmidt, a now defunct confectioner out of San Francisco, California that specialized in making chocolate truffles. They also had locally produced pastries and coffee by First Colony, an outfit out of Norfolk, Virginia. I think First Colony as I knew it went out of business, but they also used to sell coffee to The Trellis, a restaurant where I worked a few years later. It looks like First Colony was sold, so the brand still exists, but it’s not the same people running it.

I ended up buying a shitload of chocolates. I bought a 500g ballotin of Neuhaus truffles, a 500g ballotin of regular chocolates, and a wine tasting chocolate set. Neuhaus also has champagne and coffee tasting sets– those are chocolates specifically selected to be tasted with wine, champagne, and coffee. Wine is not included in the sets, but you do get a nifty booklet in several languages.

I also bought wines from Georgia, Croatia, and Hungary, but they haven’t arrived yet.

Friday night, Bill and I discussed my desire to buy an electric guitar. I showed him the one I wanted, which is quite pricey. I ended up ordering one of those yesterday as my own Christmas present. I tried to get it through its manufacturer’s Web site, but the sale wouldn’t go through. Like, it wouldn’t even attempt to go through at all. So I found the guitar I wanted on another site and did successfully order it. I don’t think the charge has been processed yet. Hopefully, it will go through. Sometimes the credit card companies are very cautious when you live in Europe and have an American billing address. If it actually gets to me, I’ll post a picture of it.

I have about half the cash needed to pay for the guitar waiting in a savings account I usually use for traveling. We aren’t doing any of that, so it makes perfect sense to just get the guitar I want. It will give me incentive to keep practicing. Not that I need incentive. I made some real progress with my guitar playing yesterday, finally managing to awkwardly play several difficult chords in the same shape. No, they aren’t perfect, but a few months ago, I couldn’t even attempt them. Now, if I’m very careful, I can actually make them ring out somewhat. Anyway, Bill is going to buy me an amp, and once he’s learned a bit more on his guitar, he’ll probably buy one he likes, too.

We also ordered sushi from Tam’s Kitchen. It was a cold, rainy night, and didn’t really seem like sushi weather, but I was dying for some. And here in Breckenheim, we happen to have a really great sushi guy who does deliveries. I think he’s actually a caterer. I don’t think he has a restaurant, per se. But you can order sushi and it will be super fresh and delicious. So that’s what we did Friday night. I think Tam is actually from Vietnam, but he sure has a way with raw fish.

Last night, I watched the memorial service done for my cousin, Karen, who died a couple of weeks ago. She was the third family member I’ve lost since mid October. I learned some new things about my cousin, who was eighteen years older than I am. We weren’t very close, but she was very much beloved by her family and our extended family. Watching the video made me miss being at home somewhat, although I think during this pandemic, I’d rather be in Germany.

And Noyzi and Arran are doing fine. Noyzi is particularly adorable these days. He has a new habit of silently showing up, ghostlike, when it’s time to eat. I slip him a little snack from the table, which is probably not a great thing to do… but he’s so sweet and basically well-behaved that my heart melts a bit.

I suspect today will be more of the same stuff. It’s cold and wet, and Germany is still locked down. Oh, I guess they call it Lockdown Lite, since stores are still open, and it’s been extended until January 10th. But there’s nothing to do anyway, and the weather is icky. So we’ll stay home, listen to music, and buy stuff online. 2020 has mostly sucked… but in some ways, it’s been kind of awesome. I miss traveling, but it’s also been nice to find new ways to occupy my time and spend money. And we are grateful we still have the money to spend. Maybe it will help some people stay in business.

Toilet seat hunting… one way to crap off the week…a

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This post was written in November 2018.  Sorry for the confusion!

On Monday of this week, I wrote a tale of woe about the toilet seat in our upstairs bathroom.  The bumper on the old toilet seat in our current house busted the other day.  Bill decided to get a new seat.  Off we went to the Toom in Herrenberg to find one.

Bill was armed with the measurements he’d taken of our current commode.  We spent several minutes perusing the impressive array of toilet seats available at our handy German hardware store…

There’s a whole wall of seats.  They range from the colorful to the plain.

Bill found a couple of contenders.

I was amused by all the beach scenes, especially since I grew up pretty close to the ocean and miss it.

This one was in 3D!

I probably would have preferred the zebra.

I was eyeing the toilets jealously, but then remembered that our new house has new toilets… or so we were told.  To be honest, with all the houses we visited, it’s hard to tell who said what.  Suffice to say, I don’t think the toilets in our new house are “water saver” types like the one in our current house’s upstairs bathroom.

Bill paid about 30 euros for the new seat, then we headed into Herrenberg for lunch.  We could have had lunch at the Toom, since they have a full scale snack bar there.  We got to town a little bit later than optimal for lunch.  It was about 1:30pm, which is getting close to “pause” time.  I’m going to miss Herrenberg, so I took a few pictures.

I took a photo of this store because I hope someday to visit and buy a table here.  They have some really beautiful custom made tables in this shop on the main drag through town.  It’s called Lieblingsholz.

Closing down the Saturday market.

A charming sign…

Just before we stopped to take a picture of this sign, we stopped at our favorite local pizzeria.  It was closed today, just as it was last time we were in Herrenberg.  I was looking at the sign and an elderly German guy came over and asked us if we wanted to “have a coffee”.  I was actually talking to Bill when I said, “What did you say?”, but I guess the guy thought I was talking to him.  It turned out the German gent spoke perfect English.  He told us about a really nice bakery down the street that serves coffee.  We were very charmed by his inclination to help us find coffee, even though we were looking for lunch and have lived near Herrenberg a total of six years over two tours!  It was such a nice, welcoming gesture, though!

Herrenberg kind of feels like home.  I fear Wiesbaden may not feel that way to me, because it’s so crowded and people have more money there.  But I have met people from Hesse who live down here near Stuttgart and I have met a guy who is married to someone from Stuttgart who lives in Hesse.  So I guess we’ll find some friendly folks regardless.

Yesterday, Bill stopped by our vets’ office in Herrenberg to pay for the dentals we had them do on our dogs and take care of the VAT form.  One of the vets had recommended that we stock up on wormers and flea and tick pills, so it would be on the VAT, too.  I’m going to miss our vets, too.  They’ve taken great care of our boys and I’ve gotten to know them fairly well, for professional purposes, anyway.  I told them I wouldn’t be surprised if we came back to the area at some point.  This is the place for guys like Bill.

We ended up at Hanoi Pho.  We have eaten there once before and I remembered liking the food.  I liked it today, too.

Shot of Bill after he asked our waiter what the lady next him was having.  She had a bowl full of fried stuff that looked just right for me.

But I ended up having shrimp with vegetables and peanut sauce.  Unfortunately, this had a couple of mushrooms in it, but Bill came to my rescue.  It was otherwise very good and lightly spicy, if not a little heavy.  

Bill went with pho made with beef and noodles.  In the picture, you can also see the mushrooms he took from my dish.  Thankfully, there was just one cut into a few pieces.  It didn’t affect the flavor of the dish.  Bill used some red chili sauce in the pho and it was apparently very potent.  He ate the whole thing and even threatened to drink the broth.  As we were leaving, he was wiping his eyes and nose because the sauce had brought on the waterworks.

The proprietor dropped hints that he was ready for a smoke break when he brought us our bill unrequested.  It came to about 25 euros.  We were about finished anyway.  Bill had to go look for a wrench so he can install the new toilet seat.  Then he said, “I guess I better get some wine, too, since we only have two bottles.  One is Moldovan and the other is semi-sweet.”

My response was, “Oh God, yes, get some wine.”  That’s my Bill.  Always a provider.  He’s been busy today, taking care of some minor maintenance issues like changing lightbulbs and offloading trash.  When he removed the old toilet seat, the bolts were so rusted that one snapped clean off.  It was definitely time for a new seat.  Hope the new tenants like it.

Tada!  After Bill installed this snazzy new seat, he fetched a bottle of wine.  I have now christened the new seat and it’s a vast improvement over the old one.  

If you got through today’s post, I would like to share with you some glorious photos from a couple of sunrises this week.  I think the view at our current house is the best part of our experience here.  I’m going to miss it, too.

These were from Tuesday…

And these were from this morning.  For about twenty minutes each morning, especially when it’s going to be cloudy, we get amazing sunrises and sunsets at this time of year.  Unfortunately, the view from our new home will include a lot of rooftops.  We weren’t as lucky in finding a rural location in Wiesbaden.

I took these on Tuesday with my digital camera, which is capable of zooming.  I loved the big blackbird.  He sits in that tree all the time, looking for rodents.  Sometimes it’s exciting to watch as he and his buddies swoop into the fields, competing with the many cats that prowl the area.

I’m not sure what tomorrow has in store for us.  I suspect I’ll be purchasing some rugs at the PX.  Maybe we’ll stop by the Auld Rogue or something.  Next weekend, we’ll be in Baden-Baden resting up and celebrating our anniversary.

Dutch delights!

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In January 2019, Bill and I decided to spend MLK weekend in The Netherlands. It was the first time we’d been in that country since June 2015, when Bill had a conference in Apeldoorn. I was lucky enough to join Bill on that 2015 trip, after which we visited Amsterdam and Haarlem for the first time. I also got stoned for the first time– on my 43rd birthday! Count me among those who favor legalized pot!

We thought The Netherlands was so beautiful and we live fairly close now… significantly closer than we did when we lived in the Stuttgart area. I found us a little vacation home in Vijlen, a little hamlet near the Belgian, German, and Dutch borders, and not far from the beautiful city of Maastricht. When we visited Maastricht, we ran across a chain cheese store called Henri Willig. It offered a dizzying array of cheeses and other Dutch treats, like honey waffle cookies and chocolate, and condiments, like garlic mayonnaise and mustards. We went home with a couple of cheeses and some waffle cookies.

Last weekend, I decided to order from their store. I can’t travel right now… but I can keep enjoying products I love, right? So I chose a couple of cheeses for Bill (and for me if they aren’t too sharp or offensive), garlic mayonnaise, chocolate, mustard, waffle cookies, cheese and garlic waffles, and even some hand cream. Everything arrived last night, and I’m now sitting here having coffee from a roastery in Berlin and a waffle cookie. Yes, I know they have a Dutch name… Stroopwafel. Anyway, you get the idea. We always seem to get them when we fly on KLM, the official Dutch airline.

In other news, this week the restrictions got a little bit looser in Germany. My neighbors, who have been deprived of a proper wine stand for weeks now, decided to gather outside by the bank of trash cans with wine. I noticed they practiced proper social distancing as they drank wine and used trash cans as bar tables! Because Bill and I are in the military community, the restrictions are still tight for us; we are under General Order Number One, which until a couple of months ago, was a mystery to me. Now, it’s the law of my life, since I am a lowly “dependa”. In fact, I’m worse than a “dependa”. I’m a contractor’s wife. 😉

They were enjoying themselves.

I have heard that people in Landstuhl and Kaiserslautern are allowed slightly more freedom. They are under General Order Number Two. That means they can travel a bit further and participate in a few more activities.

I got a laugh out of this photo, which was taken down near Stuttgart. My German friend says it’s technically correct in German, but to English speakers, it’s pretty funny.

Other than that, it’s been a regular week here… nice weather that is harder to enjoy due to the stupid pandemic. But it could be worse by far for us. I’m glad that Bill and I still love each other. I also got a guitar yesterday, which I’m learning how to play courtesy of videos on the Internet. So maybe I’ll come out of this a better person. Or at least a more skilled one.

My Scottish friend, George, and I will also probably record more music. We’ve done some good collaborations in the past. This was the most recent one… I would love to someday be able to play guitar like he does.

And Bill has been brushing up on his German skills with Duolingo. When we first moved here in 2014, I used that application every day. I finished the whole thing twice, and finally quit using it, having learned a little bit of German. I still can’t speak it, but I can understand more than I once did. I think the lessons have now been expanded a lot more. Maybe I should get back on the Duolingo wagon myself. If this keeps up for much longer, I probably will.

Coronavirus craziness in Germany!

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I haven’t been writing on the travel blog much lately for a few reasons. One is that I’ve been updating the formatting on this blog so that the old posts are readable. This time of year, when the weather sucks so much that I don’t want to venture out, is the best time to be doing that chore.

Another reason I haven’t been writing much is because Bill has been going on incessant TDYs lately. He’s currently in the United States, and this is his third TDY since the beginning of the year. I don’t really go out much on my own. I could. I’ve got a car and still can drive. In fact, this week, I have both cars! But I have no reason to go anywhere and no desire to deal with the hassles of emerging, even though it would probably do me some good.

And that brings me to the third reason I haven’t been writing much… Coronavirus. To be clear, I’m not worried about it much myself. I don’t mingle with many people and, even if I did get sick, it’s not like many people would miss me. I mean, Bill would… and Arran would… and maybe a few friends and family members. But no one really depends on what I do, so if I bit the big one, it’s no big deal.

I haven’t heard that Germany has been really badly hit with the scourge yet, but that hasn’t stopped people from panicking. Today’s featured photo was taken on Saturday, when Bill went to the Globus to buy some groceries. The entire Italian product section was stripped bare. A local chuckled when she noticed Bill taking a photo of the empty shelves.

My German friend, Susanne, says that she was forced to buy “fancy” toilet paper with flowers on it instead of the plain white she favors because there’s no regular toilet paper in the stores. Even the organic markets are being affected by panicked Germans who are hoarding stuff. Yes, it has been in the news— officially reported that even though health ministers in Germany are warning against it, people are buying out the stores.

The same thing was reported by the commissary on post. Bill went there the other day, too, and he said it was a mad house. Local officials even made an announcement about how stock was depleted faster than expected and that they were working to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

My German friend wonders why people are buying so much soap and paper products just now… and why they aren’t more concerned that there aren’t many isolation beds in this country. They’re all confined to major cities, too.

I did read one interesting account of a man who got Coronavirus after having been trapped on the Diamond Princess cruise ship for two weeks. He started getting sick on the chartered plane ride back to the States, then went into quarantine. He’s now better, and well enough to write an article for the Washington Post. That isn’t to say that people shouldn’t take precautions. Of course they should. But really, the most important thing is to practice good hygiene and have common sense. Wash your hands. That’s the most important thing. Don’t touch your face, especially if you haven’t just washed your hands. And cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze… then wash your hands again.

I’ve been thinking about taking a walk to the Rewe. I haven’t been in there since they renovated it, following the grand opening of a new drink market in December. Bill always goes and leaves me at home. There are a few things we need at home, though, and it would do me some good to get out. On the other hand, if I do go there, will there be anything left to buy? Or will I be reminded of 90s era Armenia, where everything is behind a counter?

Maybe I’ll find out… if the weather holds. If it doesn’t, I’ll keep eating leftovers.

Wiesbadener Weihnachtsmarkt 2019

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Bill and I were determined to get out of the house today, even though the skies were cloudy. It was a bit warmer today than it was yesterday and we wanted to pick up a few Christmas gifts and get some lunch in town. After a quick walk around the market and the weekly farmer’s market, we stopped by Ristorante Comeback, an Italian place on Wiesbaden’s “restaurant row”. Having tried La Cantinetta, the Italian place next door, we were eager to try a new place.

Ristorante Comeback was pretty busy, and it was warm enough that some people sat outside. We decided to sit inside, although it was pretty crowded in there. The waiter offered us English menus after hearing us speaking our native tongues, but we told him we could manage with the German menus. After five years, we can do that much, right? Here are a few photos from lunch. We both had special pasta dishes that were heavy on foam.

The waiter spoke English well and took good care of us. We rewarded him with a generous tip, for which he offered sincere thanks. I’d go back to Comeback Ristorante, although on a busy day, I think I’d rather sit outside. It was pretty chummy in the dining room. Our bill came to 55 euros and consisted of the pasta dishes, a bottle of San Pellegrino, and two glasses each of red wine. They also brought out hot, homemade bread, which was very nice.

After lunch, we did our shopping, enjoying the festive sights and sounds of Wiesbaden during the holidays. I think I prefer the market up here to the one down in Stuttgart, which was always very crowded and zoo-like. Here are some photos from our visit. We got some gifts for friends, but I saw quite a few things I wanted for myself. We may have to go back next week with more euros.

I’m not usually all that keen on Christmas markets because they’re so crowded and people don’t watch where they’re going. I like Wiesbaden’s market, though, because there’s a big space for it and the crowds aren’t so obnoxious. It’s also very festive and people are upbeat. There were quite a few buskers out, too, including one band that appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. They played “Feliz Navidad” (which Germans seem to love for some reason) and a not quite accurate version of “Jingle Bells”. But what can we say? I don’t think it’s their holiday. I give them mad props for effort and being entertaining. I hope they brought in some euros!

We went Dutch for MLK weekend 2019! Part five.

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On Sunday, we decided to visit Maastricht.  I really didn’t know what to expect, since I had never been to the city before.  I did know that there aren’t any “coffee shops” open to foreigners in Maastricht.  It’s one of the areas in the Netherlands that has chosen to restrict pot sales to people who aren’t locals.  If you want marijuana, you have to go west.

It was no big deal, though.  Maastricht proved to be entertaining without the benefit of pot.  Not only is the city beautiful, it’s also wide open on Sundays.  Yes, you can go shopping, have lunch, or simply people watch.  There was some kind of race going on there Sunday, so there were several brass bands playing along the route, along with a drum band and a group of violinists.  As a music lover, this really appealed to me.  Despite the bitter cold, I stood there and listened to a group of musicians play “Canon in D” and Vivaldi.  I’m not ashamed to admit that their version of Pachelbel’s masterpiece had me openly weeping.

We parked in a huge lot on the outskirts of town and walked in…

Right off the bat, we heard the thundering sound of drums.  An awesome drum band was beating an infectious rhythm and had attracted a crowd.  The music would be a theme in Maastricht on Sunday, as we ran into a number of bands playing in the street.  

What’s that sound?

 

You can also load up on cheese!  I wish I liked cheese more.

We rounded the corner, just out of earshot of the drummers and promptly encountered a quartet of string musicians.

I often get choked up when I hear really well played live music.  I was listening to these people with tears streaming down my cheeks.  They played so well out in the cold and their music went straight to my heart.

As you can see, other people were affected by the music, too.  

We reluctantly moved on, because it was so cold and Bill needed to get some cash.  I managed to get a few more pictures as we searched for an ATM.  We were looking for lunch and a place to pee.

Our route took us past the runners and several more excellent brass bands!

We walked through one area near a mall and several very touristy looking restaurants.  One alley smelled distinctly of cheeseburgers, which was kind of strange.  But then I noticed we were near a McDonalds.

And these guys were playing jazz… I loved that they had a tray of empty beer glasses nearby.

 

Just as we encountered our fifth musical ensemble of the day, I turned to the left and we found a place to have lunch…

 

I have a knack for finding good places to eat.  There are a few things I look for.  Mainly, I like places that aren’t either too crowded or too empty.  I prefer them to be off the main drags.  And it doesn’t hurt if it smells good outside of the restaurant, too.  A lot of people were sitting outside, despite the cold weather.  I didn’t want to sit outside, but Bill was about to bust.  So we walked inside De Twee Heeren, which turned out to be a pretty awesome bar/restaurant.  They were playing good music and had menus in English, as well as places to sit.  We ended up spending a couple of hours in there, enjoying lunch, good Dutch and Belgian beers, and fun music.

Obligatory menu shot of Bill.  They had a number of appealing choices, everything from steaks to falafel.

 

Bill had what amounted to a “sauerbraten stew”.  It came with a big basket of frites and a salad.

 

I had fish and chips.  I considered a few of the other choices and actually had some trouble deciding, but since the Netherlands is a sea faring nation, I figured the fish and chips would be good.  And they were!  I even tried the fries with mayonnaise.  That’s how they eat them…  Not bad at all, though a little bit of mayo goes a long way.

 

Bill had a double espresso while I enjoyed an excellent Belgian brew suggested by the waiter.

And one more for the road.  It’s probably a good thing German beers aren’t this interesting.

 

It was late afternoon by the time we were finished at De Twee Heeren, so we decided to get some cheese for Bill and head back to the dogs.  I might have liked to have tried another restaurant later, but I just can’t eat as much as I once did.  You’d never know it to look at me, though.

This place had lots of free samples, which Bill was happy to try.

Here he’s trying the gouda with garlic.  I think he brought some home.  I found us some beers and waffle cookies, too.  If it turns out he loves the cheese, we can order more.

We headed out of the city and I took a few more photos.

The grand looking building houses the visitor’s center, which sadly, does not have a public toilet.  Fortunately, I found one at a bustling looking hostel with a huge bar.  It was nothing to duck in, which was a huge relief.

So long, Maastricht.  We’ll be back!

 

I missed the lunar eclipse, but did manage to get a picture of the huge full moon.

 

Yesterday morning, we got up bright and early, had breakfast, let the dogs have one more romp with Yogi, and loaded up the car for the drive back to Germany.  Nel was the most awesome hostess and invited us back.  I think she said we were her first real American guests, although she has hosted Canadians.  I’m hoping a few of my American readers living in Germany might visit Vijlen.  I have a feeling we’ll go back, especially if we stay in Germany for much longer.

I love visiting small towns and talking to locals, getting a feel for the real culture.  While we always enjoy visiting big cities, I find that it’s harder to get a feel for the culture, mainly because so many other international visitors are also there.  So, if there’s anything to be learned by this trip, it’s that small towns are worth a look.  They tend to be less expensive, safer, and the locals are more likely to make a connection.  I felt like we’d made a friend when we left Nel’s place yesterday.  I hope this series will inspire a few others to visit her in lovely Vijlen!

A visit to little America– Ramstein Air Force Base…

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Bill and I have now lived in our house for almost seven weeks.  We’re mostly settled, although until today, there were still a few things that needed to find homes.  Bill had some text books from his latest master’s degree program that had nowhere to go, and the small collection of actual books I have in Germany had taken up all of the space on the one bookshelf I had allotted to our shared office.

I always buy cookbooks at Christmas, but only a few of them get much action in the kitchen.  The matching bookshelf to the one in our office was, until today, located in our dining room.  It was holding all of the cookbooks we never use.  This past year, because I bought a couple of extra books, there were a few cookbooks that needed a home.  Also, we had some kitchen gadgets that needed storage.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been looking for a nice bookshelf for the downstairs.  What I found on the local Amazon site wasn’t thrilling me, and I found nothing at all at the Wiesbaden AAFES.  German mod style doesn’t excite me, either.

Then I realized that Bill’s desk chair would probably scratch the brand new flooring in our office if I didn’t find him a rug.  Our Wiesbaden AAFES does not have a Turkish rug guy like Stuttgart has (and I’m actually pretty happy with the rugs we bought in Stuttgart in November– they’re much nicer than the ones I bought a few years ago).  I thought maybe Ramstein would have a permanent rug guy at their PX, the way Heidelberg used to and Stuttgart still does.

Finally, I realized that my skin is no longer taking makeup like it used to.  I have dry skin and when I apply makeup, it collects in my pores and makes me look even freakier than ever.  I need to start using primer under foundation so it doesn’t get all cakey and gross looking.  That meant a trip to the Lancome counter was in order.

Chili’s was also on the agenda…

With all of these items on my list, plus the prospect of getting some Southwestern Egg Rolls at Chili’s, I told Bill maybe we should go to Ramstein to see what was at the huge PX/BX there.  We now live about 80 minutes from Ramstein, quite a bit closer than we did when we were in Stuttgart.  Bill hates going there, but conceded that maybe it would be a good idea to see what the largest AAFES in Europe has to offer.

Ramstein’s Exchange is absolutely humongous.  It was opened on September 23, 2009, which was just one week after we left Germany the first time we lived here.  At the time it was opened, it was the largest AAFES in the world.  I would not be surprised if it still is.  It’s enormous, especially compared to every other AAFES I’ve ever seen.

By the way, we never did visit Ramstein during our first Stuttgart tour.  Our first time visiting Ramstein was in 2012, when we took our very first Space A hop from Baltimore.  We flew in and out of Ramstein on that trip, as well as the Space A trip we took in 2014 to Germany and France.  I remember sitting at the bar in the now defunct Chili’s Too at the AAFES mall, talking to a soldier who had basically been forced to move from England to Germany due to mental health issues.  It was an interesting and disturbing conversation.  I wonder how that guy is doing and hope he’s okay.

During our 2014 visit, I recall being sad to be leaving Germany to go back to Texas, where Bill would then retire.  I was worried about what would come next.  We didn’t know at the time that we’d be moving back to Germany just weeks after that trip; we’d taken our vacation thinking it might be our last chance to enjoy Europe before Bill left the Army.  Little did we know…

I remember visiting the PX during one or both of those Space A trips, but we didn’t buy anything there, since we were not stationed in Europe at the time.  Back then, I noticed that half of the shops were vacant.

The next time we visited Ramstein was in June 2017, on our way to Belgium.  We stopped by to gas up the car and had horrible burgers from Johnny Rocket’s.  I didn’t go inside the mall because we had our dogs with us.

The vast food court at Ramstein.  It’s probably got twice as many vendors as other AAFES food courts have.  They had Chinese food and even Anthony’s Pizza, which used to have a location at Patch Barracks when we lived in Germany the first time.  Anthony’s is long gone from Stuttgart, but Ramstein still has one, along with a Pizza Hut Express.  There’s also a Ramstein “Hofbrau” restaurant that looked somewhat lame, but probably has good food.

I had to take a picture of the tiny sewing/knitting area.  When I was growing up, AAFES had a decent sized sewing section, but not so much anymore.  I don’t sew or do needle crafts, but my mom owned her own business selling knitting and needlepoint supplies.  She taught many people how to knit.  I was not among them.

Spotted at the Birkenstock Outlet…  I think they’re pretty tacky, but I’m sure someone else loves them.  My dad, rest his soul, would probably wear these.  I noticed all of the store space was taken at Ramstein.  I don’t think I saw a single vacant space yesterday.  

Bill makes it a point to avoid Ramstein when he can help it.  He says it’s too much like being back in the States.  After today’s visit, I’m inclined to agree.  It’s a shock to go to that base and see just how much American stuff is there.  It really does feel like “home”.  As crowded as our local AAFES can get on the weekends, the one at Ramstein kind of puts it to shame.  It’s just huge– it looks like a legitimate American style mall.  And besides the Exchange, there’s also a Birkenstock Outlet, a spa, a Swarovski store, and several fast food joints in the food court I’ve not seen in other places.

So… today, we went to AAFES at Ramstein, braving the nasty January rainy weather.  I found the primer for my face.  Then, we located a bookshelf for the cookbooks.  I looked at the rugs offered by the Turkish rug guy, who appeared to have a temporary station under the escalators, but he didn’t have what I needed.  The rugs were either the wrong color or size, or they were way too expensive.  I found one really nice looking rug that would have worked for the area next to our bed that needs protection from our dogs’ toenails (they take flying leaps onto the bed, and that can cause scratches).  It was priced at 1149 euros, which is way more than I wanted to spend on a rug that shares living space with dogs.

Bill’s area sporting AAFES’ finest…  I probably wouldn’t have bought it under normal circumstances, but it works for now.

I did, however, find a rather psychedelic looking tie-dyed looking rug that would do the trick for Bill’s office chair.  It was tucked away among a pile of cheap rugs at the Exchange and came a bit closer to matching the colors in the much nicer Oriental rug on my side of the office.  Next time we visit Stuttgart, we’ll hit up the rug guy on Panzer.  Hopefully, he’ll still be there.

After we shopped– and Bill traded gossip with a former co-worker he ran into who now works at Ramstein– we went to Chili’s.  The Chili’s Too we visited at the PX in 2014 is now a Macaroni Grill.  It’s just as well that the Chili’s Too was closed, since I don’t remember liking it much when we visited in 2014.  The bartender had pissed me off for some reason.  Fortunately, my memory fails me now.  Also, I recall that location only had a limited menu.

The Chili’s we went to today offers the whole menu.  To get to Chili’s, we had to drive to the Enlisted Club on Lawn Road.  It’s right next to the bowling alley.  When we arrived at the restaurant, which is in a building that also hosts a P.F. Chang’s, we were confronted by a crowd of people waiting to be seated.

I noticed a rather strange, sour aroma in the air that made me wonder if we should abandon our plans to get Southwestern Eggrolls and go somewhere else.  But the hostess said the wait was only ten minutes, so we stuck it out.

Bill checks out the well-used menu.  I found a piece of a straw wrapper in mine. 

The noise level in the Chili’s was really high.  I felt a little like I was having lunch in an elementary school cafeteria.  Babies were shrieking; toddlers were crying; kids were yelling; and adults were talking very loudly.  I had forgotten how loud Americans can be in groups.  I don’t say this to be disparaging.  It’s just that I’ve noticed that since we’ve lived in Germany, Bill and I find ourselves speaking in lower voices when we’re in public.  I think it’s partly because we don’t want to be too obviously American.  I guess I paid close attention to all of those AFN OPSEC PSAs I used to see when I was in the Peace Corps in Armenia.

Anyway, it was extremely loud in there and very busy.  I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be a quiet lunch, but there was definitely a lot more noise than I’m used to or had anticipated.  But then, we were there in the afternoon, which is probably prime nap time for a lot of young kids.  Some of them really sounded like it was time to nap.

I took this message to heart…

 

Although the ear splitting din in the restaurant sorely tempted me to get a Margarita, I decided to have a beer.  Good thing I did, too, because our food got to us before our beers did.  And when they arrived, they had, as my Irish friend Chris would say, “shitty wee heads” on them.  Quite disappointing.

We decided to split the “Ultimate Dipper”, which is a platter of fried stuff… but it includes Southwestern Eggrolls, which is really all I wanted, anyway.  Besides the eggrolls, you get Honey-Chipotle Chicken Crispers, Crispy Cheddar Bites, Signature Wings, and (Regular) Chicken Crispers.  You also get six “dips”– basically different salad dressings like honey mustard, blue cheese, avocado ranch, and ancho chili ranch.  Oh, and there are also a few celery stalks for all you health nuts out there.  The two kinds of Chicken Crispers, by the way, weren’t really like each other.  One was like beer battered chicken and the other was like crispy chicken drenched in sweet, spicy maple syrup.  It wasn’t unlike General Tsao’s Chicken.

I’m glad we shared this.  We didn’t finish it.  Chili’s also offers fajitas, burgers, ribs, soups, and Tex Mex stuff, as well as steaks, salads, and at least one pasta dish.  I mainly go there for eggrolls.

I think the waitress was surprised to see we didn’t need any refills on the “dips”.  Neither of us likes to use a lot of condiments.  A little dab’ll do ya.

Our waitress was very friendly.  I have no complaints at all about her service, especially since the place was a bit of a zoo.  For some reason, it took awhile to get our beers, so she brought us water in the meantime, which I appreciated.  It was even still tap water, like you get in the States (although I like mine fizzy).  However, I was kind of disappointed in the appetizer.  The Cheddar Bites tasted like they’d been sitting awhile, and didn’t taste that good.  Actually, the whole thing looked a little wilted and tired, like it wasn’t quite as fresh as it should have been.  It reminded me of something I might extract from a box that came from the frozen food aisle at the commissary.

Also, I was a bit grossed out by the ladies room.  At least one of the bathroom stalls had a broken lock, and another had the remnants of someone’s dump on the toilet seat.  It didn’t exactly make me feel better after eating all that fried stuff.

Still, I did get my Southwestern Eggroll fix, which was really all I wanted.  It was also a pretty cheap lunch.  I think we paid about $26 and still had leftovers.  And after that trip to Ramstein, I feel pretty certain I won’t need to visit again for awhile.  In fact, it was kind of like a vaccine against visiting the States.  It’s been four years since I last set foot in America.  I don’t know when I’ll be going back, but I think I’m definitely content to stay in Germany for now.

I’m sort of kidding.  There are certainly good restaurants in the States, and I do still have many friends and loved ones there.  But every once in awhile, it’s good to be reminded why one should savor their time abroad.  I remember missing Germany something terrible when we moved in 2009.  I pined for it for five years, even though some good things happened during those five years away.  I know not everyone feels this way.  Some people cannot wait to move back to the States.  Me?  I think I love Europe.  It really suits me.  And while Chili’s is okay for the occasional Southwestern Eggroll, I think I’ll stick to European restaurants for now…  There will surely come a day when I’ll be missing them again, too.

And now, perhaps it’s time for a Margarita in my nice, quiet, dining room.

A decadent Sunday lunch at Little Italy Cucina Italiana in Wiesbaden…

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Back in October of 2018, Bill and I visited Wiesbaden for the first time.  Our purpose was to househunt.  We stayed in Town Hotel Wiesbaden, a small hotel downtown, with our two dogs, so we tried several restaurants near the hotel.  Little Italy Cucina Italiana was one of the restaurants we dined at, and you can read my write up of that experience here on this blog.

Today, we needed to visit our local military installation for some supplies.  I needed some high-end make up and Bill needed to get my car set up for fueling.  We stopped by AAFES first, and ended up having a very entertaining and longwinded chat with the customer service guy, who’s lived in Wiesbaden since 1974.  He got my Mini Cooper squared away with a fuel ration card and told us all about the history of the military in the area at the same time.  I probably would have enjoyed chatting with him all day, and he seemed willing, but we had more shopping to do.  So once we had my makeup in hand, we headed for the commissary.

We bought some food staples, but discovered we forgot the Bisquik once we got home.  There’s always something we miss!  Sadly, it’s not as easy to rectify things in Wiesbaden, since there’s only one commissary as opposed to the four in the Stuttgart area.  Nevertheless, I got us some cleaning supplies and junk food I’ve been craving and definitely shouldn’t be eating.  Then we stopped by the Shoppette for some wine to help ring in the new year.

After we were finished shopping, it was about 2:00pm.  We went to Wiesbaden, parked, and headed into the city center.  Our journey took us past Little Italy Cucina Italiana.  Neither Bill nor I really felt like hunting for a place to eat and it was clear the restaurant was not taking a pause.  In we walked, and we were warmly greeted by a lovely waitress who spoke excellent English.

Last time we ate at Little Italy, we dined outside.  This is possible in most weather, since they have installed heaters over the tables.  Inside, the dining room is very tiny, as are the tables.  We took a corner table that was situated very close to another table.  Fortunately, it wasn’t busy.

I told Bill I was in the mood for a really beautiful lunch.  Lo and behold, that’s what I got.  As we listened to 80s era pop hits remade into smooth jazz, Bill and I ate our way through three dynamite courses.  Feast your eyes…

Out front.  I noticed the English speaking proprietor in the window.  I remembered him from last time.  He’s very friendly and good at suggesting things.  The guy walking into the restaurant was memorable.  He appeared to be waiting for a staff member and walked in as if he owned the place.  He had on skinny jeans, walked with a confident swagger, and shook the proprietor’s hand as he caught his reflection in the mirror and fixed his hair.

 

This is about half of the dining room.  It’s not the smallest restaurant I’ve ever been to, but it’s pretty small.

 

The “bar”.

 

Obligatory shot of Bill.

We started with super fresh bread, olive oil with tomato paste, and San Pellegrino…

And excellent red wines by the glass.

The last time we visited, I was intrigued by a raw tuna and avocado appetizer.  I didn’t order it the last time, since it was almost 20 euros and I figured it would be big.  Bill and I split it this time.  I’m glad we split it.  It was delicious and super fresh, but a lot for one person.  It was citrusy tuna with avocado bits, along with a tiny salad.  Topped with a bread stick and garnished with pomegranate seeds that helped cut the saltiness, this was a lovely starter.  At the end, I got just a hint of ginger.

 

My main dish was spaghetti sepia, basically dyed with squid ink, and served with creamy hummer (lobster) sauce and shrimp.  I managed half, since I was saving room for dessert.  This was a bit heavy, but satisfying.  Next time, I’d have it without the starter.

 

Bill went with Osso Bucco, basically a veal pot roast served with a tomato and carrot sauce, and garnished with quince.  Again, a bit heavy, but delicious.  I don’t eat a lot of veal, but I did try this dish.  If you like very tender, flavorful meat that falls off the bone, this is for you.

 

Our lunch was very leisurely and enjoyable.  The staff wasn’t rushed, so the service was excellent and the food was delightful.  It was interesting to people watch, too.  This restaurant is located on a somewhat busy street that brings a lot of foot traffic.  I noticed this restaurant is very popular with Italians, too.  Always a good sign in an Italian restaurant in Germany!

I couldn’t resist having dessert.  I gave some thought to having something off the regular menu, but our bald friend had a suggestion.  He had “baba”, which was basically like a very decadent sponge cake soaked in rum, served with candied cherries, and topped with chocolate ganache.  It wasn’t too large and came in two pieces, so it was perfect for sharing.

Yummy!  The perfect end to a lovely meal.

Bill had an espresso, while I finished my Primitivo.

All told, we spent about 100 euros before the tip, which Bill paid for with a credit card.  The proprietor asked us if we had his phone number.  I’m sure he doesn’t mind guests like us, since we ate a lot and tipped well.  And it was very obvious we were having a good time… I left there gushing, “What a fabulous meal!”

The proprietor wished us a happy new year, then told us next time we’re “boring”, to give him a call.  I had to laugh, since our old veterinarian in Herrenberg made the same error.  There must be something in German grammar that causes people to say “boring” when they mean “bored”.  But hell, I don’t speak German worth a damn, so I can’t make too much fun.  I just thought it was funny.  I’ve been called a lot of things, but boring isn’t one of them.

We really like Little Italy and I think we’ll probably be regulars.  The food is always good.  The service is friendly and professional.  And we’re always warmed welcomed by the man in charge.  That makes it a winning destination… especially since they don’t seem to take an afternoon pause and we like to eat lunch late.

I got a couple of shots of the action at the ice skating rink.  Looks like there will be quite a party in Wiesbaden tomorrow night!

Incidentally, I still haven’t finished yesterday’s Five Guys cheeseburger… I better start walking my dogs more before my ass gets its own zip code.

Gig Sky… not just for making long car rides more bearable.

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For my birthday last June, Bill gifted me with a new iPad.  I think it’s my third one since 2010.  My first one had the ability to connect to a cellular network.  I remember Bill was very excited about that capability, although I never really used it.  My second iPad did not have cell access, since I had not used that feature on my first iPad.  Instead, I think Bill sprang for more memory.

When my second iPad was on its last legs, I requested a new iPad with cell access.  Why?  Because when I’m enduring a marathon car ride to some other country, having access to the Internet makes the ride less dull.  Sure, I could use my phone, but when you’re going through Switzerland, which isn’t part of the EU, you rack up roaming charges.  Also, my iPad has some games on it that aren’t on my phone.

Last summer, we decided to take a trip to Annecy, France.  The drive required travel through Switzerland.  I decided that would be when I tried out the cellular feature on my iPad.  My iPad offered three different vendors.  I chose Gig Sky, because it had a monthly option and offered more data than the other two options.  Since I’m a power user, I ordered the monthlong pass, which offers 5GB for up to thirty days.  It’s priced at $50.  The lowest priced option is a one day pass with 300MG.  It costs $10.

After successfully using Gig Sky for our France trip, I subsequently purchased more passes for other trips, some of which were in Germany.  It’s nice to be able to surf the Internet while Bill drives.  It also comes in handy at hotels where Internet access might not be so good.  And during our recent move, it was a lifesaver, since it took a couple of weeks before we could get the Internet in our house.

One thing I have discovered, though, is that Gig Sky isn’t just great for road trips.  It’s also good for shopping and reading the news.

Last May, the latest version of the very strict European Data Protection law went into effect.  This law, which is supposed to protect the privacy of Internet users in European countries, has had a number of annoying effects for us American shopaholics and news hounds.  It requires all Web sites operating within the European Union to conform to one set of standards, regardless of where the Web site is based.  Consequently, a lot of U.S. based Web sites that used to work in Europe no longer do.

Ordinarily, this would turn me off of doing business with them forever…

Time after time, ever since that law went into effect, I’ve found myself blocked from news sources and retail hangouts.  I usually buy a lot from Jos A. Bank at this time of year.  It’s always been a very APO friendly source of men’s business style work clothes.  But Jos A. Bank, along with a number of other U.S. based retailers, now block most of Europe from their Web sites due to this law, which so far has only served to annoy the hell out of me by requiring me to agree to cookies every time I hit a new site.

There are ways around this headache, of course.  I’ve found that looking at a cached version of a site will often offer me a glimpse of the news I seek.  Some people use virtual private networks (VPNs), which makes one’s ISP appear to come from a different location.  We used to have a VPN ourselves, which we used for Netflix back when we first moved to Germany.  Unfortunately, Netflix cracked down on VPN use and rendered ours pretty much useless.  Since German Netflix has improved a lot anyway, I quit subscribing to the VPN.

In any case, while we were offline, waiting for our new Internet account with Deutsche Telekom, I noticed that I was suddenly able to see the “forbidden fruit” sites that had been denied to me since the law became so strict.  I could read articles from my hometown newspaper again.  And… lo and behold, I could also shop on Jos. A. Bank again.  That’s because Gig Sky makes it look like I’m surfing from New York rather than Germany.

This is a pretty good deal, since Bill really needed some new pants and shoes for work.  I had been looking for a new source of clothes for him, but kept running into the same issues with blocked sites.  And yes, I can certainly purchase clothes in Europe, but Bill is a short man who likes his clothes cut a certain way.  European styles don’t appeal as much to him, and it’s harder to find things that fit him properly.  Anyone who’s been to Germany has seen that people are pretty tall here.  Bill is only 5’7″.  There’s also AAFES, but AAFES doesn’t have a clothing selection that appeals to Bill’s tastes.  The clothes sold there seem to be geared toward young, urban men who don’t mind wearing pink.

So, because I had some time and data left on my most recent Gig Sky pass, I used it to do some shopping for Bill.  A few days ago, I turned off my WiFi and used Gig Sky to access Jos. A. Bank on my iPad.  I spent about $800 on a boatload of new clothes for Bill.  They probably won’t get to him until after Christmas, but at least he’ll have them.

You’d think these companies would work faster to comply with Europe’s laws, especially since they still ship to APO locations.  I usually spend a lot of money every Christmas on clothes for Bill.  I hope these retailers in the States get their acts together soon.

In the meantime, I may consider resubscribing to a VPN, although it seems like doing that is kind of like skirting the law.  However, it’s nice to know that Gig Sky will work in a pinch.  Bill will be glad to have his new clothes and I’m sure Jos. A. Bank is happy for the money spent… and so is Gig Sky and Apple.