Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

Tourist killed by angry mob of peacocks. October 21, 2008

Trying to look nonchalent despite the growing crowd behind me

Trying to look nonchalent despite the growing crowd behind me

This is the headline I envisioned as no less than 50 of them inched closer and closer and closer to me at the ‘Hidden Forest’ in Plaka here on Kos island. For such a pretty bird, they have mean faces. Menacing. And did that one just give me the evil eye? Lest you think a bird is a bird is a bird, follow me in this logic: Parakeets, and finches have cute faces. Owls look smart. And vultures? Enough said.

Anyway, on paper it sounded really cool, if not a wee bit complicated. Go about 30 kilometers out of town, just past the airport and shortly after the road bends to the left, take a right by the small blue and white church (they’re ALL small blue and white churches, but that’s just details), follow the road, cross the bridge and you’re there. A magical forest in the middle of the island.

At first, I sat on an empty bench near a couple with a German Shepherd puppy. A happy, exuberant little four-month old puppy that kept tearing after the peacocks like they were littermates, sending the birds – terrified – up into the trees. Then she would run over to me, and jump up waiting to be praised while her owners called for her by a name she was too young to recognize as her own. I wasn’t able to explain in Greek that I LOVED the attention from their dog and she was no bother whatsoever, so soon they put her on a leash, and walked away.

The cats know who's in charge at the Secret Forest

The cats know who's in charge at the Secret Forest

Shortly thereafter a female peacock (peahen? Is that right?) arrived to fill the lonely space left by the puppy. And then another and another and another, until there was no loneliness, but a fair amount of anxiety. Why are they getting so CLOSE? Is this normal?

A picnic table opened up, and I moved over there…and all the birds came. And it started to seem like a scene from an M. Night Shamalyan movie. And those so rarely end well.

It was at this point that a car full of Australians pulled up, and for a good long while they had to settle for pictures of the birds with me in the midst. One of the guy commented that it was “very Jurassic park”. Another series of movies that don’t always end so well.

I guess I felt nervous because I don’t really know anything about peacocks. I don’t know how to read their body language, and I don’t know if they’re dangerous or placid or bite or peck or get an inch from your ear and let out a shrill call just to see if you’ll drop dead. And I suppose all these ideas got in my head when it became clear that the three resident cats were afraid of the peacocks. This didn’t require anthropomorphizing on my part: The cats would try to slink by the peacocks, the peacocks would notice, get pissed, and start lunging, and the cats would run 15 up a tree to get away from them.

Your own private beach oasis in Ag. Stefanos

Your own private beach oasis on Ag. Stefanos

If you’d asked me yesterday: Peacock versus island cat, my money would have been on the cat. No questions asked. Thus, watching a lone female peacock threaten a cat…and the cat back down was a little intimidating to me. Vanessa versus peacock? I say put your money on me. Vanessa versus 50 peacocks plus however many are still in the trees waiting to swoop down and peck out my eyes? Well, let’s just say it might end up being a closed-coffin funeral. To paraphrase Julius Caesar: I came, I saw, I cowered.  And when a big one jumped up onto the picnic bench next to me, I left!

In other news, it’s only been about 48 hours, but my stomach is revolting against the buffets. I don’t know if it’s the quality or the repetition, but either way, I’ve spent some time on the gastrointestinal equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. At the same time, not only does the buffet menu repeat regularly, so does the music. Every day it’s the exact same rotation of 20 songs. Its kind of like the movie Groundhog Day. Hey, wasn’t I eating greasy pork and listening to Endless Love last night? WAS that last night? What day is this!? Wasn’t Tom Jones Delilah playing the last time I had oily chocolate cake with clove-flavored ‘Coca Cold’? However, I will admit that I enjoy that part of “Let’s Dance” where she transitions from a slow ballad about “last chance for romance” into the thumping disco groove. Almost makes you want to get up, dance to the keg, and pour yourself another glass of carbonated red wine. Opa!

Ag. Stefanos beach on Kos, Greece

Ag. Stefanos beach on Kos, Greece

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You’re either in or you’re out October 20, 2008

There are some things in life where there is no gray area: Cat Person or Cat Hater. Winner or Loser. Kosher or who cares. Capitalism or Communism.

Buffets,it seems, are such a thing. So is Las Vegas. You either love them or you hate them. And the two combined might be your heaven or your hell.

I happen to love Las Vegas. I don’t really gamble. I just like the lights and the energy and the sheer audacity of the place. It’s big, it’s bright, and it’s larger than life. It’s like a party that never ends. Similarly, I feel the same way about buffets. Particularly Vegas buffets. My favorite is the one at the Wynn, followed by The Paris. As much as I like being able to walk from New York to Paris to Venice in 45 minutes, I also like to see my pizza rubbing elbows with my California rolls, Alaskan crab legs, and prime rib. Buffets represent the glory of choice.

However, I have standards. And I don’t get excited about just ANY buffet. Like the one in Vegas Vacation where you decide between the green stuff and the blue stuff? Not so much. Or your average cruise ship? No thank you. That’s why it was probably a sight – even to myself to a certain extent – to see me going to town on the Gaia Garden breakfast buffet this morning.

Let’s be honest here. This buffet would’ve been laughed out of Circus Circus. It wouldn’t even be up to snuff at the Four Queens..but it was the first such morning feast I’d seen in almost three months. Sure the bacon was raw, and the eggs sunny side up – and made seven hours ago. Admittedly, the coffee was cold and the apples had cinnamon on them to hide the brown spots, but it was a big spread of sub par products, and the cost was included with my room.

Put it all together, and I was positively thrilled.

If you haven’t guessed, the last few weeks have been a little tough in the food department, and I’ve got some calories to make up for! Although I’m a fairly intrepid eater, and a big fan of the schwarma/kebap/gyro/kebab/souvlaki pita, I have seen and sampled some wares that would make your toes curl:

  • Pizza covered in canned corn

  • Pizza covered in canned corn, canned peas, and canned carrots

  • Pizza covered in canned corn, peas, and carrots and then taken over to a counter by the pizza cart and drenched in ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise (Surely this is dinner in hell?)

  • Schwarma (gyros) heavy with French fries (what IS that!?)

  • Sidewalk corn on the cob that looks (and tastes! Oh yes. I bought one like a fool) better suited to a scarecrow decoration than to eating

  • Sidewalk fried pig’s ears

I actually have to stop here, because even recalling some of this makes me feel a little ill….

That stated, I find myself particularly pleased with my choice of an all-inclusive option on Kos. Is the food wonderful? Well…not really. I’d say somewhere between public school cafeteria and cheap cruise. Is there variety? Ummmmmmm….not so much. All in all, the Greeks slap some stuff between pastry or grill meat. There you go. Greek food. And there are only so many variations on two songs.

But is there plenty of it? Check!

And it is free? Absolutely!

And is there unlimited horrible wine, cheap beer, and Greek ouzo? Oh yeah, baby.

And you can blame the third for the reason this post is so short.

So forgive me. I took good notes in Athens, and I have tales to tell. I just need to be slightly more clear-headed to write clean copy. So, tomorrow, tomorrow! It’s only a day away…

 

Kaleidescope of phlegm September 25, 2008

Let’s talk about eating AND gross bodily emissions, shall we?

Well, there are a lot of different kinds of Italian food and they change up rather dramatically depending upon the region. However, where I’ve been, it all seems to center around the four basic food groups: milk, cheese, oil, and wheat. As near as I can tell, most Italian recipes evolved from the concept of, “I wonder if I could stuff cheese in this?” As in, “Hey, here’s a tube-like pasta, I wonder if I could stuff cheese in it?”

Check out these big squash blossoms, I wonder if I could stuff cheese in them and then deep fat fry them?”

Hey, look at this spare tire I found abandoned on the freeway, what do you say we coat it in oil, stuff cheese in it, and bathe it in a cream sauce?”

Not to say they don’t do it with a lot of panache. One of my favorite offerings was the artichoke Roman style – they take a whole artichoke, dip it in batter, and deep fry it. It’s like the “awesome blossom” of artichokes. Sounds like a good idea, but it leaves you feeling like you’ve gone swimming in the wake of the Exxon Valdez.

Anyway, whether you love or hate the super rich food is probably more a matter of one’s own palette and mucous situation. And right now, thanks to the southerly progression of my cold, I have a pretty serious phlegm crisis playing out in my chest right now. You don’t need a medical degree to figure that all this dairy ain’t helping…although it has introduced some interesting forms and color variations that someone out there may want to document and study, if only they knew how to find me.

As for the Big G – GELATO – I have sampled. I figured you can’t come here and not eat gelato, so I have had two smallish cups with two flavors each time. For these samples I sought out the (alleged) two best purveyors in Florence, the birthplace of getato. First off, it’s high quality and impressive and the first bite is beyond amazing, and your head swims a little…but, for me anyway, it’s all downhill from there. It’s just too much. Frankly, it’s like eating a bowl of cold batter. And while there’s nothing wrong with a finger scoop of batter, I draw the line at a quarter cup.

So at the risk of offending all the sugar junkies, sweet tooths, and chocoholics out there, I offer up my own translation guide on the gelato flavors I tried:

  • cioccolato mousse – cold brownie batter enriched with melted chocolate bars

  • nocciolo – the beige side of those Nutella-like spreads where the chocolate and hazelnut are separate, only higher quality…and cold

  • cioccolato arancia – cold brownie batter with melted chocolate bars and orange liqueur

  • crema – cold yellow cake batter made with plenty of yolks and loads of butter

I tell you what, I wish they offered a painter’s palette where they would give you a taste of each flavor. Like two mini-gelato spoon’s worth. Enough that you can try them all, and get an impression, but no more. That would get me in the door. When they start selling that – even if it’s at an unfair and clearly inflated price – I’ll be the first in line.

That stated, my hands down favorite thing I’ve had thus far in six days in Italy? Bruchette. little grilled toast rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil with a heap of fresh chopped tomatoes and arugula or olives or anchovies or basil or some other fresh and wonderful thing piled on top. If only I could have one with a nice plate of sashimi or maybe some oysters and a gin martini, a little tiny bit dirty… (Now I remember why i don’t talk about food. Not that I’m starving to death or anything, but it makes me hungry for things that aren’t available or out of my budget if they were! This is the same reason I never mention dogs.)

As for my time in Florence, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am an un-tourist. In fact, rather than criticize, I’m suggesting we celebrate it I am not the person whose giant head is blocking your photo of Boticellis Birth of Venus. that’s because what I like to do is walk around, people watch, see the architecture, and get the feel for a place. If there’s something amazingly ancient (as in thousands of years old) or a particularly good zoo or aquarium, then I’m probably in. I love modern art, and I get sick of the ‘church art’ pretty quickly. I’m starting to resent the zombified tour groups as much as – or more than – the locals do.

Similarly, there’s a certain march of cities that everyone seems to follow, and once there, they all flood to the same three or five or ten places. At times, I’ve been as guilty as the next guy, but the other day it occurred to me: It’s not (at all) like this is the only trip I will ever take. It’s not like these places are going anywhere. I should do what I want to do (or not), and see what I care to see (or not) and whatever with the status quo. That’s the clearest upside to traveling alone – you can go to China and not see the Great Wall if that’s your prerogative.

Thus, as I’ve seen both the Accademia and the Uffizi before, and the wait for each was two hours and three hours, respectively, and I had a killer migraine headache…screw it. I went to the Museo di Storia Della Scienza (science museum with Galileo’s tools and telescopes), hiked up to the Piazzale Michelangelo and took in the view, and then found a place to hang out and observe the spectacle of it all.

And that’s why, despite all the old art and old churches and old buildings to see in Venice, and provided I can figure out how to get there in this maze of a city – you will find me this afternoon at the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim looking at the Pollocks and happy as a clam.

 

You say bulviu, I say potato September 16, 2008

A Chinese restaurant in Klaipeda, Lithuania might seem an odd choice for lunch, but I was kind of feeling like having something besides dumplings, potato pancakes, and fried cutlets. Plus, there were some actual Asians sitting by the kitchen door and the ambiance looked nice (and it looked like it would get me out of the outrageously bitter cold immediately, which was the primary goal), so I figured what the hell.

After five minutes of being ignored and a minute or two of confusion about the seating, I settled into a seat with my Lithuanian/English menu in hand. It’s kind of amazing, but apparently there is not a single restaurateur in all of Europe with a native English-speaking friend. Every last one of them produce menus with this awkward, fumbling English which sometimes serves to charm, but more often leaves one baffled.

So as I’m working my way through, the descriptions either sounded gross (“Fried chicken, persimmon, and corn”) or plain old baffling (“two dragons meet in the forest”). I was seriously tempted to order that one just to see what would ensue…

Meanwhile, other menu descriptions were suspiciously vague. What was it they didn’t want me to know? In Lithuanian, the description is three sentences long, and in English it says “Fried Shrimps.” Fried shrimps WHAT? Fried shrimps dredged from a swamp and slathered in a toxic level of Chinese Five Spice Powder and fried up last month and left out to ferment by the light of the full moon, and then carefully placed on a bed of noodles that taste both familiarly and alarmingly of spit?

Or just fried shrimp?

If you’ve ever read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, you’re already suspicious of everything coming out of a restaurant kitchen. Even if you haven’t, you just never know in these circumstances. Thus, I decided to go with something that sounded suitably reminiscent of American Chinese food I have eaten and contained a similar level of detail to the Lithuanian version – fried eggplant in oyster sauce. How could you screw that up?

Happily, it wasn’t screwed up, but it did contain some extra ingredients not mentioned on the menu. First off, thank god I’m no longer vegan or vegetarian, because there were quite a few little scraps of meat in it (I’d guess pork) even though it was in the “vegetable” section. Second, there was a heaping helping of red and green bell peppers. Lovely to look at, but I don’t eat them. They dislike me immensely and wreak unimaginable havoc on my digestive system. In fact, there were just enough in the sauce to throw me into a state of intense distress about an hour later, but we don’t need to talk about that. Let’s just say I was glad I was near a bathroom that had more than a broiler pan nailed to the floor…

Anyway, and not to mix bathroom talk and food, but, strange translations on a menu are a veritable godsend when compared with facing a foreign grocery store. This is particularly compounded when in a country with a language based in the Roman or Cyrillic alphabets. You may as well just let a toddler do some scratching on the packages for all I know.

At the same time, it’s something of a gamble and yet an exciting one, and for this reason, I love – love, love, love, love, love – going to the grocery store. It’s a guaranteed adventure. The marvel, the wonderment, the baffling mysteries wrapped in dough or hidden in a can. I could quite possibly purchase, bring home, and eat a tin of cat food and never know the difference. For all I know, I’ve done this, and – come to think of it – my hair has never been shinier.

Obviously, certain sections are easy – produce and raw meats, in particular. That’s a good opportunity to jot down the mix of symbols that mean “chicken” or “potato” or “apple”, which could come in handy in a future situation…the kebap and schwarma stands, for instance. Other sections – particularly anything concealed in a can, frozen in a package, or prepped and shrink wrapped by the store itself (my favorite for wild experimentation) – are a total grab bag.

I still recall my total horror in a Hungarian supermarket in 1992. It was something of a trifecta of confusion:

  1. I was vegan, so I was SUPER picky about what I ate.
  2. There was pretty much nothing in the store. It was like a supermarket in Florida right after they announce a hurricane warning – bare aisles and some boxes of Tide.
  3. I bought and consumed a pastry that was a complete and utter mystery to me to this day. All I know is that the contents were black and gooey and had no flavor. Not sure what that fruit (?) is, but I’m glad we haven’t embraced it in the U.S.

Anyway, the good news is that I am now a lot less picky, because in the last month and a half I have started chewing something up, and upon examining the flavor thought, Thank god I’m not:

  • Vegetarian
  • Muslim
  • Lactose intolerant
  • A Recovering alcoholic (this in response to a pastry I bought yesterday. It was a super cheap .99 LT – like $.35 – and looked like a chocolate donut hole, only three times the size of a normal donut hole. So I figured it was a big, round brownie or chocolate thingie. It turns out it was a rum ball – heavy on the rum. It was good, but a small child would’ve been three sheets to the wind having eaten the thing. It should’ve had a “Mister Yuck” sticker on it or something to warn parents!)
  • Jewish
  • Squeamish (this after some pirogies ordered from a non-English speaker in Poland. Gee, I didn’t know they made pirogi in ‘ground up bones and lint’ flavor.)
  • Allergic to fish, nuts, animal parts no one in their right mind would eat, etc.

In other words, if you are any of the above and have plans to come to Eastern Europe and buy your own food or venture into places without an English menu…hire a translator.

Meanwhile, I had a nice day in Klaipeda. It’s cold as hell, but I won’t focus on that and whine to you. It’s the Baltics, what did I expect? Tomorrow I have a long bus ride to Riga (five hours – need to take it easy on the morning beverages!) where there is a hotel with a sauna on the premises and wifi in the room awaiting me. I’ll write you a nice, long post about what I’ve seen here in the fatherland (besides grouchy people) and post some photos of me freezing my @ss off by Baltic Ocean.

In other news, and not to always have a cloud in the silver lining, but after getting back from my day out on the coast, two guys in their late sixties (at least) have checked into the “youth” hostel. Go ahead and call me elitist, call me a snob, even bitchy, I can take it. I still think I have the right to say that 70 is too old to be youth hosteling.

They have the look of the homeless to them (everything but the shopping cart full of cans) or maybe just Hells Angels kicked to the curb (or dropped off at the nursing home), and I am wee bit spooked, especially since discovering they’re in the bunk that touches mine (although I plan to move. Screw it.) The hostel is practically in the parking lot of the train and bus stations, so I guess it has an “anything goes” policy with respect to guests. One of them looks like Dennis Hopper if Dennis Hopper had lived the same wild life of drugs and booze, but without any money or proper nutrition, and lost some key teeth along the way. Right now he’s eating a piece of bread like it’s corn on the cob, while reading a magazine called “Fighters”. “Fighters” features a woman in nothing but a camo print thong straddling a vicious motorcycle-like thing that may have been swiped from the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome set. It’s in German, and the top banner says, “100% EDELBIKES, 100% ACTION, 100% TUNING, 100% SZENE.”

Creeeeeeee-py.

Presuming I get through the night in one piece (ah, who are we kidding? I’d fight like a demon if it came to it. For many years I had a vivid dream [nightmare] life in which I killed thousands of undead, zombies, and vampires every night. I’m ready.), I’ll catch you up tomorrow from Riga!

 

It’s vegetarian, just pick out the meat June 14, 2008

Filed under: Travel — wideawakeinwonderland @ 9:16 am
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“If a lump of soot falls into the soup and you cannot conveniently get it out, stir it well in and it will give the soup a French taste.”
Jonathan Swift

Have I mentioned that the first time I backpacked Europe alone – from August 1992 through March 1993 – that I was vegan? Veganism is the form of vegetarianism where, in addition to not eating any animal products (nothing with a face!), you also do not eat any eggs or milk. In other words, I made it just about as hard on myself as I possibly could.

Actually, when I was in Santa Cruz (where I began my veganism), I learned of an even more extreme discipline (and I am not making this up!) – Fruitarianism. That is where you eat only raw fruits and seeds. Actually, what I remember are some people I met in downtown SC explaining that they would only eat fruit that fell from a tree of its own free will. Being vegan in Europe was extreme, but not THAT extreme! I suppose I would’ve had to sneak onto people’s farms and into their orchards and wait for fruit to drop? Maybe shake a few trees here and there to move things along?

As a side note, I think my digestive system would go totally nuts on a diet of all raw fruit. I know when I occasionally overdo it with those delicious Sunsweet prunes in the yellow package (or dried plums, as they’re marketing them now) I pay the piper. This usually occurs to me right around the time I’m swallowing my tenth one…and by then it’s too late. Bartender, a bag of prunes with an Immodium chaser!

Anyway, I digress. Last time I backpacked Europe I was vegan, which meant:

  1. No one had any idea what I was talking about.
  2. You would explain it and they would proceed to very carefully and kindly make some food in the hostel kitchen to share with you. After you’d checked three times that it was vegan and then happily devoured a bowl of the best soup you’d had in your whole life, you’d start the inquiries into “what WAS that culinary marvel, should I want to make it for myself some day?” And your German companion would cheerfully tell you (after some mutual translation issues) that it was ox tail soup. Apparently, since there weren’t any giant chunks of ox floating in it, he figured that made it vegan. This “picking out of the meat” or “meat is inside the dough where you can’t see it” or “entire dish is made of meat, but then I put the whole thing into the blender” form of veganism was a common misinterpretation.
  3. Regular trips to France to load up on cans of garbanzo beans.
  4. Night sweats and horrific stomach issues brought about by the occasional dabble with cheese (I suppose I had developed some element of lactose intolerance?)

Regardless, I persevered in my beliefs and dietary discipline…and eventually gave it up about six years later when my mother’s cousin – a naturopathic doctor, acupuncturist, and vegetarian of 25 years – served up a turkey on Thanksgiving. We can get into that whole story later, if you’d like, but suffice it to say, I eat everything now.

Or just about everything.

The trip kicks off August 3rd in Iceland, and their famous ‘let’s scare the tourists’ dish, hakarl (shark meat which has rotted underground for several months) is cause for alarm. Some of you may recall when chef Anthony Bourdain tried it, he stated the hakarl was “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’d ever eaten. That’s hard core. Already, discussions of how to get a crate of Powerbars into the country have commenced.