Monday, September 1, 2014

Prague Pho

A "light" lunch in Prague.
One hazard of visiting Prague wasn't obvious to me at first.  I had expected to do lots of walking over rough cobblestones, interact with people using unfamiliar languages, and eat strange and unusual foods.  What I hadn't anticipated was that every meal would be so substantial.  It seemed we couldn't eat any food without encountering the ever-present dumplings.  The only question was whether the particular dish called for bread dumplings or potato dumplings.  We were made to understand there was a system as to which was served...bread with some dishes and the even denser potato dumplings with others.  We never quite grasped the rationale of why each one was supplied with a specific food, but learned to accept whatever was placed in front of us.  

After several days of hearty stews, goulashes, and roasted meats accompanied by the endless supply of dumplings and rich gravies, we were barely able to move.  With all the stick-to-your-ribs type food, it got to the point where I never felt hungry.  Wandering the streets one evening, we debated what to have for our supper that wouldn't add to our increasing gastronomic overload. 

The apartment we rented while in Prague, was in a 12th century monastery located about a block from the Vltava River.  Our apartment was entered through the inner courtyard, 
which had once served as the kitchen garden for the nuns.  The green space and roses gave us a little relief from the busy city streets we found throughout the Stare Mesto area.  Built into the outer wall of the convent, facing the street and almost below our room, was a small Vietnamese restaurant we passed each day.  It was entered through an adjoining small market which was run by the same family. 

A nice bowl of pho sounded like maybe just what my overworked belly needed to begin to calm down a bit.  We entered the market and found our way through into the small dining room, and discovered it really was a family run enterprise.  After we seated ourselves, we realized we were the only customers in residence, and had arrived at what was obviously the family meal time.  Grandpa was watching and entertaining the little ones, Mom was busy in the kitchen preparing the family's dinner as well as ours, and the sons shuttled between minding the market and setting the table for their meal.  Between kitchen duties and the need to man the little store next door, the entire family never sat down together.  It was rather more like a much-rehearsed and fast-paced ballet, with one or two persons always in motion.  All was fine until the two small boys(maybe 2 & 3) managed to escape without attracting Grandpa's attention, after which any attempt at order was abandoned.


We sat and watched all this and any tension or stress we were harboring was quickly left behind.  The pho was delicious and just what I needed.  We valiantly struggled to contain our mirth as the youngsters were quickly evicted from their hiding place and returned to Grandpa's custody.  It was easy to see this was nothing unusual for this group.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

They do things differently here

05 June 2014, Wertach im Allgäu


Neighborhood pub in Prague
One of the great things about travel is getting to meet people from different lands, interact with them, and learn about them and their culture.  One of the favorite ways we experience and learn about people and places is by trying out new and sometimes unfamiliar local foods.  Dropping into a sidewalk café and ordering something off the menu by just pointing can lead to interesting discoveries.

Even though this is not our first adventure in this part of the world, we are still learning that things don’t work the way they do back home in Texas.   This was most obvious some years past when we went to the backwoods of Italy, spending a week in a little town far from the usual American tourist hangouts.  There was only one restaurant in the tiny village, and we never did find it open despite trying at different times for the week we were there.

Our view as we walk down into Wertach
Here in the Bavarian Alps, it is not quite so extreme, but there is still some need for adjustment on our part.  Many of the smaller shops are closed from 12-2 for lunch.  This hasn’t been much inconvenience for us since shopping isn’t our top priority.  Most restaurants are open all day, but we have discovered that between “lunch” and “dinner”, say 2-6, there may be only a bare-bones cold menu offered.  So long as you only want cold cuts, cheese and bread or such, no problem.  For us, our routine when traveling in Texas or some of the other United States, is to have a late breakfast and an early dinner around 5 or 6pm, skipping lunch altogether.  Here we are forced to become night owls, not eating dinner until 7pm or even later…horrors!  It is amazing that any of us poor Americans actually survive traveling through a world where the inhabitants just don’t know how things are supposed to be done!


Wertach
We are now staying in a quiet, small town in southern Bavaria which is far removed from American infiltrations.  There are few here who are comfortable with speaking English, and our German certainly is lacking.  On our first full day in town we stopped in a Gasthaus for something to eat in the middle of the afternoon.  We were hungry and didn’t want to wait for the dinner service, so we pointed at a couple of items on the short "cold" menu.  They didn’t sound totally familiar, but I was hungry.   My wife ordered an open-faced ham & cheese sandwich.  When my order arrived, it turned out that the TellerSulz I asked for was thin-sliced pork roast with pickles & veggies covered with thin-sliced raw onions.
Tellersulz
It was only when I moved some of the onions out of the way I discovered the entire meal was encased in gelatin.  Think headcheese and you'll be close.  Each of the ingredients was good and very tasty, but with the gelatin holding everything together, it was very much like eating cold pork covered with undercooked egg whites…every bite proved to be slimy.  I tried to scrape the gelatin from the pork to no avail.  All I could do was chase the slippery slices around the plate with a chunk of brown bread.  Even though each bite seemed to grow in size the more I chewed, I finally finished. 

A quick check of my dictionary after we got back to our condo confirmed I had really gotten what I ordered.  Since then I make a point of carrying it with me to avoid further embarrassments, even though we like to think we are semi-knowledgeable regarding German food.  I'd rather look like a tourist thumbing through the phrasebook, instead of blindly ordering something I'll regret and feel like a fool while eating.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

MayBelle Redeemed

04 June 2014, Wertach im Allgäu

 Many people of a certain age have a love-hate relationship with technology.  The very young embrace the newest gizmo without hesitation, and the very old mostly ignore them.  Then there are us who are neither young nor old, who really want to have the latest gadgets, but can’t quite figure out how to operate them effectively.

This is my lot in life.  I own a computer, a laptop, and a “smart” phone.  I have spent several decades building a tenuous relationship with my computers, but occasionally yearn to return to a simpler time and type in a few DOS commands (children ask your parents). 

 My telephone is a popular brand which has a partially eaten fruit as its logo, and currently, I am on my third one of the same brand.  The reason for my apparent brand loyalty is simple…each new version operates exactly the same as the previous.  No learning curve!  My Lovely Bride has her own “smart” phone from a competing brand, and she is quick to point out its superiority over my allegedly old-fashioned one.  Her bragging sessions usually end with some discussion of the inability of old dogs to learn new tricks.

At any rate, my fruit-flavored phone does what I ask of it, and it functions pretty reliably no matter where we travel.  One of the newer (for me) uses, is the phone’s map function which allows me to plan trips around Texas and other states, even telling me when and where to turn.  Please understand…I have wandered back and forth across Texas since I first got my driver’s license at age 14 with nothing more than a paper map from my uncle’s ENCO station.  Aside from locating a specific street address in one of the larger cities in Texas, the map was rarely dug out of the overstuffed glove box.  After all, it was Texas...how lost could I get?

My wife doesn’t understand my new-found affection for my map/navigation program, which I’ve named MayBelle.  She is constantly asking why I persist in turning on the map feature to go places I already know how to find, especially since I invariably ignore Maybelle‘s directions and tend to get into arguments with her (MayBelle - not my wife.)  The explanation that I don’t want to go the way MayBelle wants to go somehow doesn’t satisfy her.

We are currently on vacation in Bavaria, with a rental car to explore some of the back roads and find things we weren’t looking for, and I knew ahead of time the car was equipped with a fancy satellite navigation system for our use.  However, on collecting the car we discovered the GPS was set up in German with no discernible way of switching it to English, so MayBelle was called upon.  For probably the first time, I faithfully followed MayBelle’s instructions.  Wonder of wonders, we actually found our apartment in the Bavarian Alps.  Then today, a trip to the lakeside town of Lindau, passing through some of the most beautiful countryside, and most confusing small villages and towns I’ve ever seen.  MayBelle managed with nary a misstep nor wrong turn.  Oh, I missed a turn or two, but she quickly got me back on track each time.  Her only real shortcoming was her pronunciation of German place names, anything ending in -strasse, came out as -stress, and the names of most of the little towns and villages were indecipherable.  Her pronunciation of “Sankt Ulrich Strasse” has to be heard to be believed.

If MayBelle is able to keep up this level of performance, I may have to rethink how I utilize her after we get home.  Maybe I should start trusting her to get me to San Antone or College Station without second guessing her. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

In Search of the Elusive Wasserfall

Written 05 June 2014, Wertach im Algau

After yesterday’s big outing to Lake Constance and the city of Lindau, I knew my Lovely Bride would not be stirring about too early this morning.  One of the premier activities which had been associated with Wertach by our hosts was hiking in all its manifestations.  And so I was determined to get out in the clear mountain air and go for a walk, while allowing Susan to enjoy a more leisurely beginning to her day.


I clamped my shapeless boonie hat upon my head, hung a small pack with a jug of cold water over my shoulder, made sure my map & phone were with me and set out.  There was no well defined destination for my tramp, just a tiny notation on a map of the area surrounding Wertach which indicated the presence of a wasserfall up a nearby trail.  For a Texas boy who has been living with constant drought for the last decade or more, this was an irresistible lure.


Trail-side Shrine
The trek began easily enough.  The first stretch of trail began only steps from our apartment, and was straight and trended slightly downhill.  As I began, I encountered a small shrine beside the trail, which looked eerily similar to the roadside crosses which dot most Texas farm-to-market roads to indicate where some unfortunate lost their life in an accident.  I continued on with a sense of foreboding and about a kilometer down the trail, I was faced with my first decision.  The trail to the wasserfall made a 90 degree turn off the original trail and followed alongside a mountain stream.  There were actually two trails, one on each side of the stream, with one being steep, narrow and overgrown in appearance, while the other was level, well graveled, and well marked.  Fifty meters later, my choice, the well cared for trail, naturally turned out to be the wrong one and I was forced to ford the stream to get to the correct trail.  Not an auspicious beginning! 

Once on the correct trail, the path was easy and presented no problems.  Stopping now and again, I would have a swallow of water or take a photo of the countryside.  Strange bird calls including a loud & persistent cuckoo could be heard, and the trickling of the small stream kept me company.  Thirty minutes into this stage, I began to hear a high-pitched ringing which gradually got louder.  I emerged from the stream bed at a small farm track, and the mystery of my tinnitus was solved.

video
Just across the road was  a small group of young heifers.  As they spotted me and began to move along the fence in my direction, I realized each had a bell around its neck.  I wasn’t sure of why they were so interested in me, but they followed along the fence as I sought the continuation of the trail.  As I started up the next section of trail, I heard a noise and turned back in time to see a farmer on his tractor drive up to the youngsters with a bucket of feed.  They weren’t really interested in me, it was breakfast time!


I left them behind and trudged up the trail.  No longer the well cared for path, now mud and wet leaves were the norm.  The farther along, the more the conditions deteriorated.  The rougher the trail, the more I kept thinking of my wife’s parting words…”If you hurt yourself again, I know you’ll be fine, but I don’t want to have to deal with that in a foreign country!”  Just because a guy makes one little mistake, they never let you forget.  Well, it was actually more than one...maybe more like 3 or 4 over the years.  But it’s not like I meant for those things to happen.  Really, I don’t enjoy helicopter rides.


Trail conditions kept getting worse, and I kept scrutinizing my map.  After all, my whole purpose was to find that wasserfall and take its picture.  I kept edging up the steepening path, and never saw more than a trickle of water over the rocks in the bottom of the gorge.  By now, the slimy trail had occasional honeycombed concrete pavers reinforced with t-posts driven into the mud trying to keep it all stabilized.  A last map check showed me well past the point where the wasserfall should have been, I decided discretion was the better part of valor, and headed back to more solid ground in Wertach.  I remembered the military truism that retreat is more hazardous than the advance, so I took my time and carefully picked my way down the gully until I found myself on terra firmer. 

Arriving where the farm track crossed the trail, my bovine friends had left for greener pastures, and I decided to follow the track back into town.  A mere 10 minutes found me closing on our apartment, rather than the 1½ hours the trail had taken.  And that phantom wasserfall?  I think I’m going to stop at the Rathaus and have a little talk with the Chamber of Commerce about their map.

Musical cows


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dining at Johann's Haus


Our hotel in Vienna, the Austria Classic Hotel Wien, was just outside of the Innerestadt near the Prater amusement park.  It worked out very well for us, being near a couple of U-bahn stations which allowed us easy access to the rest of the city.  After making the 1.5 kilometer walk once, we gravitated to the underground to save what energy we could for walking around the heart of Vienna. 

Breakfast was a rather extravagant production by the hotel, and we fortified ourselves each morning with pastries, cured meats, yogurts, and cheeses before venturing out into the blustery weather which seemed to follow us throughout our visit.  The wonderful, and ubiquitous, Viennese Melange certainly helped prepare us for a day of damp sightseeing.  After stuffing ourselves at the hotel buffet, we would head out for a day of sightseeing and usually tried for an early(for Vienna) dinner somewhere inside the Ringstraße.

One of our last days of sightseeing included the Hofburg palace and Imperial Apartments.  If everyone else who was visiting Vienna hadn't also decided it would be the perfect place to escape the rain, it would have been much more enjoyable for us.  As it was, my Lovely Bride and I both began feeling very claustrophobic and moved through the crowded rooms as quickly as possible.  Later we did avoid some of the crowds by visiting St Peter's church, where we happened upon an unexpected concert rehearsal which allowed us to sit and enjoy some beautiful music.  It turned into a very long day so we just headed back to our hotel, and after resting for awhile decided to find dinner closer to the hotel that night.

Each day on our way to the local U-bahn station, we passed a building which was almost hidden by scaffolding.  It was obviously undergoing a restoration of the external facade, and my main concern was to avoid having anything dropped on my head as we passed each day.  When we starting discussing a spot to eat, my Lovely Bride kept insisting she wanted to try the restaurant we passed every day.  She finally had to lead me into it as I had never even realized there was a restaurant hiding behind the scaffolding.  My observational skills are not always so hot now-a-days.
How it looks without scaffolding.

Once past the door, we discovered a small jewel of a restaurant named the 3/4 Takt.   Everything was paneled in wood, with a cozy bar which was occupied by a single gentleman.  There was a separate room for smokers which we found to be somewhat unusual as smokers and non-smokers tended to be mixed together in most of the eating establishments we visited during our trip.  The kitchen was just off the small dining room, and after placing our orders, I could hear my schnitzel being beaten into submission.  No dishes prepared ahead of time here!

Roast pork, kraut & dumpling
Schnitzel "Cordon Bleu"
Our food was delicious and perfectly prepared.  Earlier in the week I had insisted on a restaurant known for its schnitzel and which had been featured on several cable food programs.  It was crowded with tourists from all over Europe as well as the US, but the food was mediocre at best.  The 3/4 Takt easily had the best schnitzel I encountered during our three week trip.


It wasn't until we were viewing the menu that we discovered the reason for the somewhat unusual name of the restaurant.  Johann Strauss had resided in the building while he was writing his best known waltz, An der schönen blauen Donau, or The Blue Danube.  Like all waltzes, it was written in 3/4 time or in German - 3/4 takt.  If someone(yes dear) had not persistently urged me to dine there, we would have completely missed this historic, and tasty, footnote which was only a block from our hotel.
(I didn't spill the coffee on the menu.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

An Angry Man

I last talked about my retirement in this blog about a year ago.  http://narunatexas.blogspot.com/2013/09/retirement.html  At that time I thought I might survive not going to work every day, but reserved final judgement on the whole idea of retirement, waiting to see what the future would bring.

Since then we (for it is not a solo journey) have meandered along through life, enjoying spending time together.  A trip to Europe was a highlight of the past year, as was a recent mission trip to Mississippi.  Our lives have mostly revolved around each other and our small country church family.  There have been highs and lows, but together we have survived and grown.

One thing which I am still trying to decide as to whether it is a positive or a negative, has been my attachment to "social media" in the form of Facebook.  I know more about how family and friends are doing than I dreamed possible just a few years ago, and have renewed friendships which I had thought were lost forever.  Some days it seems as though I can't escape the silly thing, with it following me around in the guise of an alleged smartphone which constantly encourages me to see what is happening in the world at the expense of face-to-face human interaction. 

Most days, it seems to be an endless stream of the frivolous and humorous.  Occasionally, it brings me something superficially inane which may actually start me thinking.  I know independent thought is not the raison d’etre of social media, but if you aren't careful sometimes it just slips out.  One such event occurred this past week in the form of this cartoon/sign which was posted by a former co-worker.  I looked at the image of little Bam-Bam, read the accompanying text and chuckled a bit.  Then the mental wheels began slowly turning and I admitted I used to carry around a lengthy list of people who fit into this group.  Most were folks I encountered through work in some fashion, although there may have been a couple from other venues.  I kept feeling something was slightly amiss, but it was only after a day or two of reflection I came to the somewhat startling realization I no longer had a mental list of people who needed to be smacked.  

It wasn't until the following Sunday as I sat listening to my pastor's sermon that I had my epiphany.  Without getting into too many details, the gist of his message was that we are known, influenced, and defined by those we associate with.  I awoke to the knowledge that during the last 10 years I had worked, I had become an ever angrier person, with an ever-lengthening list of people I was angry with and wanted to "smack upside the head."  My mental makeup and personality kept me from turning all that anger loose, so I kept it bottled up and took it home with me to my family.  The more difficult idea, which I can now finally admit, it was really myself I was angry at for allowing those people and situations to rule my life.  I was the one who needed smacking!

As I sat in that little 135 year old sanctuary, I realized I had spent the last 18 months associating with only my Lovely Bride, our families, and church family, and I wasn't angry at anyone, especially myself.  Spending time with those we love, and those who love us, gives us a wonderfully different view of our world.  I won't pretend I don't still get riled occasionally, but the focus has shifted to a broader scope of issues such as; plagues in Africa, war in Israel, politicians and political parties, and the state of our nation.  Thankfully, it is no longer those destructive personal issues which frequently hit much too close to home.   Best of all, I am no longer that angry man. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Next step: Wertach.


Our last day in Vienna dawned bright and sunny.  After breakfast at our hotel, we rolled our bags out the door and headed for the closest U-Bahn station.  As we rode towards the Bahnhof, we felt the same way about Vienna as when we left Venice…our time spent there was just enough to begin to understand the possibilities.  We had become comfortable maneuvering around the city and were ready to really begin some serious sightseeing.  Our first visit here was accompanied by snow and cold, and this trip cold rain made walking around town a challenge.

The train eased out of the Vienna station 2 minutes late as a result of the section from Budapest arriving that much behind schedule.  Only a few brief halts as we rolled toward Germany on this express.  In Salzburg, ½ the cars and an engine were detached, with no noticeable delay, so those souls could continue on to Innsbruck in the Tirol.  Our section rolled along and into Munich.



It turned out the most difficult part of our trip from Austria to Germany was finding the car rental salon in the train station.  I had seemingly straightforward instructions from the website where I had reserved the car, telling us the salon was on the 1st floor(2nd floor for us Americans) in the center of the station.  Unfortunately, the area was being renovated so there was some construction confusion.  We finally located an elevator which seemed sure to take us the right direction(up), but got herded off by an enthusiastic Deutsche Bahn employee who spoke no English, but kept insisting it was verboten.  Fifteen minutes later, after finding an out of the way stairway, the salon de autos was located and we were able to obtain the keys to a VW Golf which was hidden away in yet another building.  As we walked away from the counter, the helpful young man called out to us, saying, “There is an elevator you can use just around the corner.”  You guessed it…the same elevator we had been chased off!


We found the car without too much difficulty, and set to familiarizing ourselves with its controls.  The built-in GPS was, of course, set up totally in German with no apparent way of switching it to English, and it was quickly obvious we would be relying on paper maps and my smart phone’s map app for our trip.  
 
Driving across southern Bavaria turned out to be much less stressful than I had feared.  Picking up the car at the Hauptbahnhof meant we were on the side of town closest to where we were headed, so we were able to make a fairly quick escape from the big city and into the countryside.  There were only a couple of turns required to put us into the general area where the town of Wertach is located.
"Our" Pizza Place

 
It was only after I turned off the main road into Wertach that I ran into trouble.  We had a hand-drawn map and some photos from our hosts to guide us to our destination.  Unfortunately, trying to follow the directions & photos, listening to my iPhone butchering German street names, all while dodging the drivers who actually knew where there were going, caused us to circle the very narrow streets several times before finally arriving at our condo. 


The next day was spent walking the streets and getting a much better feel for this small town.  It is not a large place and there are not very many streets, but none are actually straight.  Most streets curve as they follow old paths which were laid out long before there were such things as automobiles.  Fortunately, everything is within walking distance if you don’t mind a few rather steep hills.  I try to view it as a little extra exercise to help offset the really good Gasthaus meals we’ve been sampling.
Gasthaus Hirsch - one of many good places to eat.