Drinking Tea in Taiwan

My first cup of tea in Taiwan was at a massage parlor.

It was our first weekend in Taiwan, and we had gone on a long bike ride with our friends Dave, Wendy, and Kyla that morning. By the time we returned in the mid-afternoon, we were so worn out (me + non-padded bike seats = not friends) that a massage was just about the only thing tempting enough to get us off the couch.

Dave and Wendy escorted us down to a bustling massage parlor in the neighborhood, and booked themselves in for foot massages while Jacob and I were shown to adjacent beds for back and shoulder massages. We had been warned in advance that a Taiwanese massage was not meant to be relaxing. These masseuses are experts in pressure points, have a preternatural ability to find knots you didn’t know you had, and make liberal use of their elbows. I wouldn’t call it an enjoyable experience, but the euphoric sense of well-being afterwards is worth it. I practiced Lamaze breathing throughout the massage, proud of myself for being able to manage the pain without complaining.

I was doing fine until the petite masseuse (who had been digging into my back with her elbow for the past ten minutes) moved on to new pressure points – on my butt. Now I don’t know if you have ever experienced someone poking at these pressure points on your butt (more like the side of your upper-leg, below the hips bone), but oh man. It hurts. At this point my resolve broke down and I channeled my pain by alternately laughing and going, “Ow. Ow. Ow. OW. OW. Ow.” All the masseuses working at the row of beds started giggling. I don’t make for a dignified massage patient.

Once released from pressure-point torture, the masseuse sympathetically brought me a paper cup of tea. It was a revelation. Made from roasted then boiled barley, the tea was nutty, cereal-y, complex, and refreshing all at once. And this, come to find out, was just one of the run-of-the-mill teas available in Taiwan, inexpensive and widely consumed. It was addiction at first sip.

A few days later we were on the tea-hunt in the mountains above Taipei, heading to an area called Maokong, well known for its tea fields and tea houses. Getting to Maokong was a picturesque trip in itself. After a subway ride to the Taipei Zoo, we boarded a gondola that took us high up into the mountains, passing lush jungle, temples, and tea fields on the way up. It was remarkable to be in such a quiet and peaceful place so close to Taipei.

Maokong is clearly set up for tourism, and offered us more to do than we had time for in one afternoon. We immediately trekked out to the Tea Promotion Center to visit a free museum on how tea is made, and drink a complimentary cup of red oolong tea. The museum was small and quiet, it’s main attraction (aside from the free tea) being its gorgeous surroundings and proximity to several hiking trailheads. After perusing the museum and drinking our tea, we started down one of the trails, passing through tea fields, bamboo groves, and meandering streams. The tea fields were a surprise to us.

I couldn’t say exactly what we were expecting, but it certainly wasn’t a field of very average looking bushes with thick, hardy leaves. Who was it who went around boiling leaves until they discovered that some leaves produced exquisite drinks? Who took it even further and decided to start drying, sorting, and rolling the leaves? Having had a small glimpse into the tea production process, our next goal was to experience a bit of tea culture.

I will confess that I know hardly anything about tea. I know that it has as rich and nuanced a culture surrounding it as wine, coffee, and chocolate. It is something you can develop a palate for, is steeped (hah, look! A pun!) in tradition and ritual, and can cost you tens of thousands of dollars if you are a connoisseur. I know that there are some types of teas I like more than others, but that is where my knowledge ends. If I wasn’t going to get a full master class on tea in Taiwan, at least I could experience some of the centuries-old tradition that can still found in Taiwan’s tea houses.

All of our research led us to Jiufen, one of northern Taiwan’s most famous destinations for tea houses. Jiufen is an old gold-mining town built onto the side of a steep hill overlooking Taiwan’s east coast. The town’s famous old street is a narrow lantern-lined passageway that winds it’s way uphill, weaving between rickety old wooden shops, tea houses, and occasionally opening up into beautiful panoramas of the coastline below.

Jiufen’s most iconic building is the Amei Tea House, which has become even more famous as the real-life inspiration for Miyazaki’s 2001 anime masterpiece, Spirited Away.  

When we arrived in Jiufen, after about an hour on the bus, it was overcast and bitterly cold from the wind kicking up along the coast. We dove immediately into the crowded old street, and started looking for food. There was a place we had read about, near the top of the town, that was famous for its taro ball soup.

As excited as Jacob was for the taro ball soup, I was skeptical. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth as it is, and a sweet soup didn’t sound very exciting to me. We got one bowl to split, tried a spoonful, and I immediately changed my mind. The soup was hot, fruity, and sweet, filled with chewy balls of sweet potato and taro mochi. On a cold day, it was the best thing I could have asked for. We ate our soup ridiculously fast, as I informed Jacob that we needed to come back for another bowl before we left Jiufen that day.  

Warmed up from our soup, we started exploring a bit more enthusiastically, checking out tea houses as we went along. We had a bit of a dilemma. As much as we wanted to try a tea house, Jacob and I balked at the idea of going anywhere too touristy. At the same time however, we were completely lost anywhere that didn’t have pictures on the menu. It was a catch-22.

Eventually we stumbled upon the famous Amei Tea House, queued up to take a picture, and noticed a tiny and sketchy looking stone passageway immediately next door.

We shimmied sideways through the narrow entrance, and ducked our heads through a cobwebbed low stone passage that looks like it had been untouched since Jiufen’s mining days.

Coming out the other end of the passage, we found ourselves in a quiet courtyard, standing in front of a massive old wooden tea house. This, we decided, was it.

We went inside the tea house, occupied only by the owners and a set of old women drinking tea. We were led to a table on a covered verandah, whose ancient windows shook and rattled whenever a gust of window hit the tea house. The hostess came to our table and lit a fire in a massive cauldron on the floor next to the table, then set a kettle of hot water on the fire.

She disappeared for a moment, and returned with a tray of clay dishes and wooden utensils. She set the tray on the table, and began to show us how to prepare the tea.

She started by scooping oolong tea into a tiny pot, placing the pot into a larger bowl, and then filling the pot until overflowing with water. Next, she placed tiny cups, hardly larger than a thimble, into the bowl, and poured the tea out over the cups. Using a pair of wooden tongs, she rinsed the dishes in the tea, then discarded the liquid. After she had placed the warm cups on a cloth outside the bowl, she poured more water into the tea pot, let it sit for about 30 seconds, then poured it a pitcher fitted with a strainer. From the pitcher the tea was poured into the thimble-cups. Next, a small bowl (our actual tea cups) was inverted over the cups, then flipped. Lifting the cup so the tea poured into the bowl, she held the cup up for us to smell, then presented us with our bowls of tea. We watched the entire process in awe.

This, she indicated to us, is what we were to do (more or less) to prepare the tea. Tossing the first water poured over new tea leaves was to wash off any impurities, after which the tea could be re-steeped roughly 6 times before it should be replaced with new tea. The oolong tea, even to our uneducated palates, was exquisite. It was light and floral, with a soft, almost creamy quality. The first cups were always the best, before the tea began to take on the slight bitter edge that I am familiar with from (likely sub-par) green tea.  

We spent the remainder of our afternoon in the tea house, listening to the wind rattle the windows, and drinking cup after tiny cup of tea. This, we decided, was a better tea experience than we could have even hoped for – a beautiful tea ceremony in an old, decidedly non-touristy tea house, and a few leisurely hours watching the storm clouds roll over while the lanterns lit up on the streets below.

The Street Food of Taipei

It’s always a challenge to talk about a trip after the fact. Friends ask us how our time in Taiwan was, and we instantly respond, “It was great…”, and then stop. Anything you say next would be a ridiculous oversimplification of your experience, but what other choice do you have?

My answer: “The food was amazing.”

And really, truly, it is.

Taiwan is famous for her bustling night markets, which open daily around 5:00 PM and run into the early morning hours. Many of the markets have shops and stalls selling clothes, trinkets, and cheap house supplies; but the real draw of a night market is the food. It is not a place where you go to do your grocery shopping – you go to eat.

True to form, we had researched the markets extensively prior to our trip, and had begun compiling a list of things we wanted to try before we even arrived. One evening in Vienna, we ate dinner while watching a 30-minute Youtube video of a person silently walking through a night market, zooming in on the food being prepared at every stand. We were glued to the screen for all 30 minutes.

This type of research actually wound up being excellent night market preparation. The markets are a maze of activity with seemingly endless food options – it is simply impossible to try everything. Furthermore, some markets are famous for certain offerings that you will not find anywhere else. Knowing all of this in advance helped us to prioritize our eating (very important), know what to look for, and better still, know what it was that we were eating.  

Once in Taiwan, we didn’t waste any time. The evening of our first day we ventured out to the massive Shilin Night Market with two friends, Dave and Kyla. Our first purchase was the most notorious of Taiwanese street foods: stinky tofu.

Stinky tofu is a common, albeit extremely divisive, find in Taiwan. It is made of tofu that has been allowed to ferment in brine and seasonings until it takes on an extremely pungent, funky smell. I would liken the smell to strong blue cheese that has been rubbed into really dirty, over-used gym socks, then left in a closed bag for two weeks.

You can find stinky tofu served in various levels of stink, but the version most often found at the night markets is on the less extreme side: the tofu is deep fried, covered with a sweet chili sauce, and served with sweet and sour cabbage.

Jacob and I bought one serving ($1.50 USD), and jumped in. As with most stinky foods, the flavor was much milder than the smell. The fried texture and sweet chili sauce helped to make the tofu more palatable, but the funk really pushed through in the aftertaste, lingering in your mouth until you ate something else.

Most of the stalls in the night markets are permanent fixtures, with small storefronts or open kitchens for cooking their food. Scattered throughout the aisles however, you can see the flow of people break around little carts manned by vendors selling trinkets, cooked quail eggs, baked sweet potatoes, and more. The small carts, according to Dave, are typically illegal vendors, who do not have the permission needed to set up a permanent shop.  “Just wait until the police come,” Dave said.

Less than five minutes later were standing in a broad aisle, with three or so of these “illegal vendors” in sight. Suddenly the one closest to us perks up her head, looks around quickly, then snaps shut her cart and disappears down a side alley – all in 10 seconds. The other vendors had disappeared just as quickly. A minute later a police man walked slowly down the aisle. Thirty seconds after they had passed, the vendors were back in place. None of us could figure out how the vendors had been alerted that the police were coming – “maybe they have an app for that.” ;)

After finding a place to dispose of the remains of our stinky tofu (we couldn’t bring ourselves to finish it all), we rounded a corner to find a line of 15-20 people extending out from a tent where a flurry of activity was taking place. We were too far away to see what the tent was offering, but the line was enough to convince us. If this many people found this particular stand worth waiting for, in an apparent sea of options, who were we to say they were wrong? 

As we got closer to the tent we found out that we were queueing for steamed and pan-fried pork buns, sold for a shockingly cheap 37 cents USD a piece. We each bought a bun, hot off the griddle, and bit into a soft and lightly crisped dough, topped with sesame seeds, and filled with deeply flavored pork dripping in its own gravy. It was one of those moments where everything goes quiet as you are filled with reverence and awe – like looking at the Sistine Chapel. Just imagine how much more amazing the Sistine Chapel would be with pork buns.

This experience drove home a lesson that would be our mantra for the remainder of our time in Taiwan: if you see people queueing for food, get in line. 

The Taiwanese have absolutely no qualms about waiting in line if the reward is deemed worthwhile. It is, in fact, such a documented phenomenon, that some stalls will hire people to form a queue just to entice other shoppers. Certain foods, restaurants, and stalls are so incredibly popular (made so by the food bloggers that have the Taipei market cornered), that queuing for the food, then posting a selfie with your prize, has become a status symbol.

Our “get in line” philosophy worked every time, without fail.

Another time we decided to just “get in line”, we wound up with the most addictive scallion pancakes you could possibly hope for. Jacob and I were roaming the streets of a trendy art district in Taipei, when we came across a line of people stretching past several storefronts. A quick investigation found that the line terminated here:

Five minutes later we had our own pancake ($1.00 USD) in hand, hot off the grill. The dough was savory and salty; doughy, crunchy, and chewy all at the same time. It was one of those foods where the very act of sinking your teeth into it feels very satisfying.  

As food is available virtually everywhere in Taipei, most of our daily adventures included either stumbling across something amazing to eat, or tracking down one of the food items on our list.

One of the things that topped our list was Gua Bao, one of Jacob’s and my favorite foods. Gua Bao is essentially a steamed bun, split open, and stuffed with sweet braised pork belly, pickled vegetables, cilantro, and crushed peanuts. It is a gorgeous, perfectly balanced combination of everything you could want in one bite: sweet, smoky, sour, meaty, with a soft bun, tender pork, crunchy peanuts, and a fresh hit of cilantro.

Unfortunately, it is not an easy dish to find in Europe. Now that Jacob and I were in the land of Gua Bao however, nothing was going to stop us. Until – we couldn’t find it. We didn’t see it in the night markets, and all of our wanderings around random food stalls down back alleys wasn’t turning up any Gua Bao. Eventually we described the dish to our hosts, asking if they had seen it before. Thankfully, Wendy believed she knew of a stand in their neighborhood that made it. Our eyes widened at the news. Gua Bao was close - closer than we even expected. Twenty minutes later we were following Wendy down a labyrinth of streets, dodging scooters, with a single goal in mind.

And then – there she was. A young woman worked the stand singlehandedly, selecting perfectly fatted pieces of pork belly from their braising liquid and stuffing them into little handfuls of heaven. She must have seen the anticipation in my eyes, like a dog straining at a leash, because she held out the first Gua Bao and said, “Take a picture!”. Yes, ma’am.

A couple of days later we were back at the stand, and she recognized us. “One Gua Bao?” she asked. “Three please!”. ($1.39 USD each)

On one of our last evenings in Taiwan, a small group of us made our way to the well-known Rahoe Night Market. This particular night market offered another one-of-a-kind street food that was high on our list: black pepper buns. Judging from the layout of Shilin Market, the buns might be a challenge to find, but it would be worth the effort.

It turns out that we had found the buns almost before we entered the market. Forty people waited in a line stretched out past the market entrance, corded off into a snaking queuing order like airport security.

As opposed to the typical Taiwanese bun, which are made of a soft dough and steamed until fluffy, these buns are baked. We watched as a small crew of cooks worked furiously to stuff the dough with an unbelievable amount of black pepper pork and green onions, then close up the bun and stick it to the side of a large drum-like oven. Once the bun fell of the side of the oven, it was cooked and ready to go.

They were so hot when we got them that we all burnt our mouths on the buns. “Worth it”, we said, as we tried to keep eating and cool off our mouths at the same time. ($1.50 USD each)

We spent just under two weeks in Taiwan, so as you can imagine, I could keep going for a long time. Rather than telling you about each thing, here is a visual synopsis of our street food. (And that isn’t even including anything we ate in restaurants – I saved those amazing experiences for another blog post.)

Adventures in Taiwan: "Why Taiwan?"

For the past several months, every time Jacob and I told someone that we were going on vacation to Taiwan, the first question out of their mouths was, “why Taiwan?”.

It’s an unusual question, if you think about it. How often do you ask why someone is going on vacation to an exotic foreign country? It is the sort of question you typically ask only if you are not sure what the draw to that country is. Our friends and acquaintances were not alone in asking this. All of our research indicated that Taiwan is the undiscovered gem of Asia – a gorgeous, inexpensive, accessible, and friendly country, that, within Asia, is acknowledged as the food destination.  

Our immediate answer to the question was: “We have friends in Taipei. Also, the food.” And while this was 100% true (in fact, our times with our friends and making new friends proved to be the highlight of our stay), Taiwan has a lot to offer beyond that.

Here’s what you need to know about Taiwan. Taipei, the capital city of this small island nation, sits in the north of the island. The climate is tropical, so even in the middle of winter the weather remains pleasant (especially for the likes of Jacob and I, leaving the snow to arrive to 65 degrees Fahrenheit). Taiwan is the subject of a long history of dispute between the Chinese and the Japanese, while also absorbing strong cultural influences from the Dutch, the Spanish (as a result of maritime trading hubs throughout the island), and in more recent history, the United States. The result is a true “melting pot” of culture. The cuisine is one of the places where this “melting pot” is most visible, and a big reason why the food is so remarkable.

It also means that, for travelers like Jacob and I, who have very little experience in the Eastern Hemisphere, Taiwan provides less of a culture shock than other countries might. In fact, that was one of the first observations Jacob and I made when we landed in Taipei.

As tired as we were from 22+ hours of traveling, we knew exactly where we needed to go in the airport and what we needed to do. We bought a two-week SIM card with unlimited data for $15 USD before we even collected our baggage. Making the purchase at the kiosk was straightforward and uncomplicated. Purchasing our bus tickets to the city was equally simple, and the area to queue for the bus was well-marked. Before long, we had met with our friends and were taking the subway home, without once feeling like we had fallen out of our depth.

The next day the cultural differences started to become more apparent (or perhaps we were simply more observant), but Taiwan always struck a delightful balance of being totally new and “other”; stretching us past our previous experiences without ever becoming too much to handle.

We stayed with our friends (Dave and Wendy Hudson, long-time family friends and all-around wonderful people) in their home in the district of Tamsui.

Tamsui sits along the north coast of Taiwan, and the mouth of a river that runs south through the city. While Tamsui is somewhat outside of the city center (“city center” is not really a fair description though – Taipei is a bit like New York city, split into districts that each have their own hubs of actions), it provided a vibrant and action-packed home-base for our stay.  

Our first morning we ventured out into our neighborhood just to begin absorbing the sights and sounds. The streets are relatively narrow, flanked by four or five-story apartment buildings, with store fronts lining the streets. Scooters zip by haphazardly, making crossing the street a chaotic dance that requires a lot of feigned confidence but somehow always worked out. The smell of food is everywhere, wafting out of restaurants (that make up just about every third storefront) and food stalls that pop up like mushrooms on most streets.   

Wendy guided us to the start of the covered wet market (selling produce, fish, and meat, etc.) and set us loose to roam. The sensory immersion was incredible. We pushed through narrow aisles, avoiding people on scooters, ducking around shoppers and displays of fresh vegetables, trays of fish, hanging meat, stacks of prepared food, and fielding the constant call and chatter of the vendors hawking their goods.

We turned round a corner from the market and found ourselves in an unexpected pocket of quiet. We had entered a temple courtyard sitting in deep shadow, and the noise level dropped from near-chaos to near-silence. The suddenness of the change was staggering. We took a moment to breath in the silence, smell the burning incense, and plunged back into the market.

At the end of the covered market we popped out into a busy shopping street and smelled something really good. The smell of freshly baked sweet bread floated our way, and we saw a line of 7-8 people queued in front of a stall that was just pulling a massive tray of super fluffy cake or bread out of the oven. Naturally, we were curious and got in line. As we debated what it was and whether we should be purchasing it, the young woman in front of us turned around and gave us a thumbs up, and said “very good”. We smiled and thanked her, and every-so-often she would turn around again and repeat, “very, very good”.

She was right. We purchased a slab for ourselves (they only sold it in one size: huge), and sat down on the steps of 7-Eleven (which are everywhere in Taipei) to eat it. It was something between a cake and an egg bread, ridiculously fluffy, lightly sweet, custardy, and layered with melted cheese for a slightly salty bite. We ate about 1/8th of it between us, thinking that our first food purchase was boding well for the rest of our time in Taiwan.

Later on, Wendy found an article on the cake we had purchased (called Original Cake), which had apparently originated in the Tamsui district and had become a sensation. The article talks about how the company had just opened a new store in Malaysia, where people were queuing for hours at a time just to get a piece.

In the afternoon Jacob and I walked along the bustling waterfront with Bubble Tea in hand (Taiwan is the birth place of Bubble Tea! Did you know?), and met a very smiley old man walking a dog that had been styled to look like a goat. Because…why not?

And there my friends, I will pause this story with a “To be continued”. But please don’t worry - there is a lot more to come: more photos, more stories, and definitely more food.

Ice Skating on the Danube

Amid the humdrum weeks after Christmas, when winter starts to really soak into your bones and make you long for Spring, something special has been happening in Vienna. 

This January has been the coldest in Austria in 11 years; the thermostat sticking stubbornly around 15 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks on end. This also means that, for the first time in 11 years, the Danube River has frozen over. 

I first noticed it one day at work, after a foggy night had frozen onto the trees of the park next to my office, covering every branch and twig in ice that glittered in the sun. 

As I looked out the window towards the river, I saw a little black stick figure walking in the middle of the Danube. I did a second-take. Is that a person?!

Now those of you from ghastly-cold places like Michigan and Siberia are probably rolling your eyes. I am sure this is hardly exciting for you.  Well for me, and most others from moderate-weather places, it's mind blowing. Sure, I have experienced blizzards and ice-storms before, but those are typically weather flukes that strike, paralyze the world for a couple days, then melt back into respectable moderation. The type of sustained cold required to freeze over a massive river is a new experience for me. 

And I'm not the only one who thinks it's cool. CNN even produced a short segment on the freezing of the Danube, with my office building visible in the background.

Today Jacob and I decided to dust off my languishing ice skates and spend some time on the river. I had never walked out on a frozen river (or lake) before, much less had so grand an ice skating rink available to me. 

I was a bit nervous to see large patches of running water as we got off the bridge, until I realized that the heat generated by the trains was probably keeping the ice from forming in that particular area. As long as we stayed away from the bridge (and near the other people who were safely on top of the ice - not under it), we would be fine. 

One of the coolest parts of being on the river was seeing the variations in how the ice had formed. In some areas the ice was a matte gray, giving way to steaks of deeper blue. In other areas it was clear that the ice had melted and broken away, then re-froze.  

The most stunning sight was how the ice had formed, broken, and re-formed around permanent fixtures in the water, like this pedestrian draw-bridge. 

Also, have you missed our faces? Well, here you go. You'll be seeing a lot more of them as we start posting pictures and stories from our upcoming trip to Taiwan!

Recipe: Rum Manhattan

I am not going to say too much, I am just going to leave this right here: 

I am calling it a Rum Manhattan. It may have another name somewhere in the world, but as this classy Mad Men-esque drink came directly from the brilliant mind of Jacob, I don't know what that name is. The drink is reminiscent of a good Whiskey Manhattan though (one of my all time favorite drinks), so Rum Manhattan it is.

It goes something like this: one part spiced rum, one part sweet vermouth. Off to a good start, aren't we?

Then we add in some Grand Marnier for a decadent orange edge, balance it out with some lemon, and add two types of bitters for depth and complexity. 

Are you sold yet? Thought so, here's the recipe:

Exploring the Gard Region of Southern France

My family comes from the Gard region of Languedoc Roussillon, a stunningly beautiful, but comparatively little known area of Southern France. While many visitors to France head over to the more famous Provence and Cote D’Azur regions (just bordering Languedoc Roussillon), they miss out on a stunning area of France filled with medieval villages, vineyards, dramatic mountains, rivers, ravines, castles, and gorgeous coastline.

I could write for hours on all of the things to do or see in the region, but for now I will focus specifically on the Gard, the eastern-most province of Languedoc Roussillon. The Gard is characterized by a landscape of rolling hills and rivers that build into the grand Massif-Central Cevennes mountain range. The area is predominantly agricultural, meaning that between the quaint villages, your drives around the Gard will be filled with gorgeous panoramas of vineyards, sunflower fields, and iconic tree lined avenues. 

The agricultural nature of the Gard also means that the area still preserves many strong food and food-making traditions. You can turn down nearly any gravel road and find yourself at an independent winery or a farm selling house-made goat cheese, pâté, honey, and more.

 To the south, the Gard does offer a small spit of coastline, but frankly, it is not as nice as many of the beaches that can be found to the east and the west. If you want to go for a swim in the Gard area, do as the locals do and head to a river. Mountain rivers score the landscape, often cutting through deep ravines and spanned by gorgeous Medieval bridges and aqueducts. Grab your swim gear and water shoes and you are sure to find a well-beaten foot path leading down to the water’s edge.

To the north, the Gard is hedged with dramatic mountain ranges, sweeping panoramas, and enough lovely mountain villages to get lost in for months at a time. There is so much to see and explore in the Cevennes mountains that you may just find yourself packing a picnic and driving up the first mountain road you find. Regardless of which one you take, you are bound to find yourself somewhere beautiful.  

The pace of life is slow in the Gard, and can best be enjoyed by allowing yourself the time to relax, enjoy long, leisurely meals, and take sunset walks. There is certainly enough to do in the Gard that you could pack your visit full of activities, but to get the most out of the local culture, I would recommend purposefully slowing down – even if that means doing less.

That being said however, let’s get to the list of things you won’t want to miss in the Gard.

Recipe: Plum Clafoutis

Meet my new favorite dessert, the Plum Clafoutis.

Last Autumn, Jacob and I "discovered" Tarte Tatin, an upside-down French apple tart. Yum. It is delicious, impressive, and baked in caramel, which means making it is a pain in the butt...I mean, labor of love. 

The technique includes making a butter caramel in a heavy skillet, then cooking the apples in the soft caramel sauce, and covering everything with puff pastry before transferring the whole deal to the oven. After baking comes the ever-treacherous flip, which has flung molten caramel across my kitchen more than once. 

In comparison, you have the Plum Clafoutis, our current summer obsession. A Plum Clafoutis uses a similar technique as the Tarte Tatin, while thankfully leaving out the dangerous bits (I have spent a lot less time scrubbing burnt sugar off my stove this time around).

The plums are cooked briefly in butter and sugar, forming a thick syrup around the plums and giving the fruit a caramelized bite. The fruit and syrup is then transferred to a pie tin, topped with an eggy, pancake-like batter, then popped into the oven to finish baking. While baking, the cake puffs up (similar to a Dutch Baby), and the plums rise to the surface to show off. 

Topped with powdered sugar before serving, a Clafoutis makes a unique and elegant dessert, while also pairing beautifully with coffee for brunch or an afternoon tea. 

Best of all, the a Clafoutis is a highly customizable cake, and can be made with just about any summer stone fruit you have on hand. Cherries? No problem. Peaches? Nectarines? Go for it. While the small sweet-sour Zwetschgen plums are plentiful in Vienna though, I will be making a lot of Clafoutis. 

Finding the Heart of France

After years of visiting my family home in Southern France, this has become my favorite sight:

A closed gate. This gate means the afternoon is winding down and you are home to stay. This gate means that the day's excursions are done - everyone has returned to the nest and nothing else is needed. 

This is my second favorite sight: 

From the edge of the terrace you can look over the pool, the mountains as they change color in the setting sun, and the barbecue - usually tended by a small group of people, all with their glasses of wine. 

This is what you see when you turn around: 

People bustling in and out of the kitchen, listening to music, setting the table, and putting the final touches on dinner.

Food has always been my way of connecting with France. This may not come as a surprise to you - I mean, it is me after all. You already know that I really love food. And then, of course it is France, the land of baguettes, cheese (more than 365 different types!), and wine.

It goes deeper than that however. Everywhere you look, you can see people folding the rituals of food, food making, and eating into their lives. 

You can see it in how an elderly neighbor and long-time family friend stops by to present us with a bottle of his homemade Cartagen, a sweet regional liquor made from freshly pressed grapes.

Or how his wife still keeps my Grandmother's old books on identifying mushrooms, and knows all the right places to forage.

You can see it in the bee keeper, a friend from church, who takes his bee hives "up to pasture" to the aromatic hilltops of the Ardeche so his bees produce a richer honey.

Or how the little old man at the weekly market in Uzes sets up a small card table displaying two plastic boxes filled with goat cheese. He only has two kinds: Less dry and more dry, and it is the most complex and flavorful goat cheese you could ever hope to try. 

One of our favorite days came as a tip from my cousin - a talented wine maker with a thriving business. He told us of a wine festival taking place in nearby Anduze, a picturesque town situated along a river on the edge of the mountains. The festival would feature over 25 local, independent wine-makers - my cousin being one of them. 

The next day Jacob and I drove over to Anduze, and walked into the festival. The park was pleasantly busy - not crowded, but bustling with people tasting wine, having picnics, children riding mini horses, and buskers playing old-fashioned French vaudeville music. 

We paid the 4 Euro entry fee that granted us a wine glass and booklet for taking notes, and the tasting began. The vintners were set up in a semi-circle, each with 2-3 wines on display. All you had to do was approach a winemaker, let them know which wine you would like to try (we chose to stick with the reds - there were a lot of wines to try and we weren't planning on getting wasted), make small talk and take notes as desired, then thank them and move on. If you decided to purchase a bottle that would be handled at another tent separate from the tasting area. 

As someone who loves samples, but always feels guilty taking one without buying anything...I'm not alone in this, am I? Anyways, having an entire wine festival dedicated to pressure-free sampling made me giddy with joy (the wine helped too). Why don't more festivals do it this way? You could have easily spent the entire day there, drinking over 60 wines, for a grand total of 4 Euros - and you get to keep the glass.

In all these things I saw a common thread: a love for a life that finds pleasure in community, beauty in the simple things, and refuses to be hurried or pressured along. You could see it in the fact that the festival's entry fee was €4, as opposed to $50.00 as it could have easily been elsewhere. I realized it with a jolt when trying to run errands and finding all of the department stores closed for lunch between noon and 2 pm.  

It is difficult, as a visitor, to enter into the same slow stream that characterizes the south of France. It takes time for your heart to start beating slower, for your mind to stop racing, to let yourself relax into the beauty of simply being

So Jacob and I (and the rest of my family as well - we were in good company), hit the brakes and forced ourselves to wind down the fastest way we knew how: through cooking.

This year in France was a special one. It had been 12 years since this much of my family had been together in France at once. It was also the first time that we all really cooked together. My brother taught me recipes he created for the restaurant he is opening in Sydney. I taught him how to make green beans taste better than he thought possible. We brainstormed dishes to challenge each other and show off our skills, then had 6 sets of willing hands ready to act as sous-chefs.  

Over a week and a half we made lemon-stuffed trout, lavender-smoked artichokes, fried chicken and collard-style green beans, flank steak with chimichurri sauce, ricotta and olive stuffed peppers, American-style ribs and truffle macaroni and cheese, and much more. Not every experiment was a blazing success, but everything tasted amazing.

This is the beating heart of what I love about France. "My France" is slow mornings, lazy hot days, afternoon naps, and long, long evenings spent around the dinner table. My France is food shopping, wine tasting, bursts of activity before dinner, and star-gazing late into the night. 

I have always found the romance of France to be an elusive one to capture. In some places, you can find a city's pulse by simply strolling its streets and feeling its vibrancy. But walking France's markets and cobblestoned villages only left me skimming the surface of what I've always known to be a deeper pool. Finding that connection this year (in food, what else?) filled me with enough ideas and thoughts to fill a book - and so, I am starting to write one. It may take years to finish, but it will be full of stories of the people, the food, and the stories that cut straight to the heart of southern France.

But while you wait, I will give you some recipes. Stay tuned. :) 

 

 

Sardinia and Dreams of Food

My earliest food memories are not of eating but of cooking. My mother made nearly everything she cooked from scratch, spoiling us kids with French delicacies while we complained about having to eat mushroom and red wine infused Boeuf Bourguignon “again”. She also had to deal (quite frequently) with my brothers and I staring into a half empty fridge, whining “there is nothing to eat!”. “Yes there is,” she would always reply, “you just have to make it”.

So I did – and haven’t stopped.

Sitting on the breathtaking beaches of Sardinia kick-started some deep personal reflection. I find that whenever I am on holiday, with time to slow down, breathe, and dream about the future, I end up wandering back over to the same subject: food and cooking.

I realized how much my mother’s approach to cooking shaped my own perspective on food (thank you, Mom!). She taught me how to cook by instinct, to know by taste which layers of flavor are missing and which ingredients a finished dish contains. She coached me, through years of cooking failures and successes, to understand what techniques produce what results. She taught me the value that comes from cooking your own food: how it gives you freedom, control, and teaches you balance.

While in Sardinia, Jacob and I had two exceptional meals, both of which left a lasting impression for something other than the food.

The first was on a day-long boat trip we took to visit some of the coves that were only accessible via boat. We chose to book with a company that used smaller boats and limited their passengers to around 30. The trip offered lunch and aperitifs along with several stops at gorgeous pristine white coves with crystalline water. In the morning the atmosphere on the boat was slightly strained. All of the guests were jockeying for a prime spot to enjoy the trip, perhaps secretly wishing (as I was), that they could have had the boat to themselves.

People relaxed slowly as the morning wore on, but at lunch there was a transformation. Guests were seated at bench tables that accommodated six. A crisp white wine stood waiting on each table alongside a basket of bread. Stilted introductions were made, and the same old small talk questions as always were exchanged: “where do you come from? How do you like Sardinia?”. The first course was served: a typical Sardinian dish made with small Fregola pasta, a thin wine and tomato based sauce, and lots of seafood. Amidst the mounds of Fregola were crab legs, langoustine in their shell, calamari, and mussels. Things started to get messy, cracking into crab legs and peeling shrimp. Wine was poured. The dish had the ephemeral sweet taste of the sea. People began to relax, and talk. Real questions, and real answers. The room became louder with chatter and laughter.

The second course was served: whole shrimp, head still attached, sautéed in butter, herbs, and a local liquor, served in a large dish to share. More wine was poured. By this time the whole table was laughing, slurping at shrimp shells and accepting heaping second helpings. Our table re-filled our dish three times. I had never tasted such sweet shrimp.

Next came dessert – lemon sorbet served with coffee and tea. Finally, the captain came around with two bottles of ice cold liquor in hand, both homemade. One was a Sardinian style grappa that burned as it went down, the other, a thick and sweet liquor made of the myrtle berries that grow thick on the island.

By the time lunch was over everyone on the boat was friends, smiling benevolently at each other and sharing their previously coveted space. It struck me how effectively food can bring people together. It can break down walls, and build trust. A shared meal is a powerful thing.


Our second exceptional meal in Sardinia was at an unusual seafood restaurant tucked down at the end of a dirt road. Seafood in Sardinia is not especially cheap, but Jacob and I knew we wanted to have one glorious meal where we indulged in all the fresh seafood we could not find in Vienna. My research turned up a restaurant that was reviewed as having exceptionally fresh seafood for the price. We made our reservations and gave ourselves extra time to drive out to the coast and find the restaurant. Our directions took us through the industrial port, down a quiet dirt road along the water that ended in a fishing co-op. We parked and looked around, but there was no sign of the restaurant. The fishing co-op was surrounded by water on both sides – the sea to one side and a bay on the other. Walking over to a bridge, we saw a flaking and sun-faded wooden sign for the restaurant. It pointed across the bridge, and down a further dirt road. Crossing the bridge, we stopped to look at ropes full of cultivating mussels, and large tanks whose water roiled the movement of fish. This was clearly where our dinner would come from.

We walked down the empty dirt road for about ten minutes before we came to a small building on the edge of the bay, isolated and surrounded by pines. The restaurant did not open until 7:30, so we waited as other guests arrived on foot for their reservations. We were seated and brought a pitcher of house wine.  No menus were provided – we had simply told them how many courses we wanted when making the reservation. Now, they would bring us what they had prepared for the evening.

First came a cold salad of perfectly tender squid, octopus, cuttlefish and potatoes. The salad was dressed in only the barest of lemon and olive oil, letting the delicate flavor of the seafood shine through.

Our second course was a massive bowl of fresh mussels steamed in white wine and butter. The sauce was light and pleasantly briny, once again allowing the sweet mussels to be the star of the dish.

Our third course was another seafood Fregola, like the one eaten on the boat, studded with large pieces of lobster, crab, squid, and clams.

Next a plate arrived with two full grilled sea bream, adorned only with a slice of lemon. As I informed Jacob with every course, I had never had such fresh or perfectly cooked fish. It was a revelation of how incredible a white fish could be.

Finally, the meal ended with hefty slices of sweet watermelon, as Jacob and I discussed how glad we were that we had only taken the smallest of the two fixed price menus - €25 each for 5 courses and a bottle of wine.

Being so close to the source of our food that evening reminded me of how my own fascinations were reflected in the cooking choices I made when I was young. As a child I would go through phases of food obsession. I had a deviled egg phase: For several weeks, I made deviled eggs whenever I had the chance. I also had a garlic bread stage. That ended the day my mother leaned over to me in church, sniffed once, and stated “you smell like garlic”. Another phase revolved around melted cheddar cheese – particularly how the oil would separate out and fry the remaining curd, leaving a lacy and crisp cheese cracker behind.

4 years ago, Jacob and I spent a month in Sweden and found ourselves immersed in a world that I have since come to deeply appreciate. At the time it was a shock. We were newly married, fresh off the plane from San Diego, embarking on a disorienting 6-month trip around Europe. That trip was life changing in many ways (it brought us to Vienna!), but that month in Sweden continues to impact me. Our host family folded us into their slow, peaceful pace of life, teaching us how to bake bread, harvest vegetables, and forage for edible herbs, berries, and mushrooms from the forest. We only scratched the surface of all there was to learn. I will never forget the day I first found summer chanterelle mushrooms on my own, and came home with pockets full of golden treasure.

Since then, my fascination with the fundamental crafts of cooking has grown exponentially. I want to learn everything. I want to understand where my food comes from. I want to spend a year on a vineyard tending vines and making wine. I want to learn how to butcher meat and clean a fish. I want to make sourdough bread with my own yeast starter, and learn to forage and identify edible plants by their leaves and smell. These fascinations are, in my mind, a grown up, rounded-out expression of the same interest that drove my “deviled egg phase”, and I am sure, will continue to shape the future I dream of.  

Ball Season in Vienna

Once again I find myself needing to recap months at a time on this blog, only to ask myself: But what did I even do in the last months? As it turns out (and I didn't realize until now), the answer is: A LOT. 

So let's dive in, starting with the earliest first: 

The IAEA Ball

Vienna is one of the few places I know of that still has a strong culture of balls. The official start date of Ball Season takes place sometime in November, and reaches it's peak in January and February. According to the Vienna city website, over 450 balls take place each year. Frankly, that is astounding to me. How, when the rest of the world casually swapped balls for gala fundraisers (on one side of the economic spectrum) and house parties (on the other side of the economic spectrum), did Vienna manage to hold on?

The balls tend to be split by networks or profession. For example, you have one ball for lawyers, another for bakers, another for Coffee House Owners (no kidding), one for the IAEA section of the United Nations, one for people who like hiphop, etc. The balls vary in size and formality, but if you look around, you are bound to find one that you are interested in. 

Rumor is that there are tours groups (typically from Asia) that offer ball seasons to young women who want to feel like a European princess for a winter. The ladies are put up in hotels with chaperones, given dancing lessons, taken shopping for gowns, and provided with well groomed young men to be their prince for the evening - and every evening, of every ball they attend. Google has yet to confirm this for me.  

We attended the IAEA Ball, one of the largest in Vienna, with a small group of good friends. Finding a ball gown was easy enough for me, though a tuxedo for Jacob was another story. The dress codes are strict - men must wear a tuxedo and bowtie, or will be barred entry. Bowties are sold at the door at appropriately exorbitant prices for anyone left in a pinch. Another option (as it is a United Nations organization hosting the ball) is to wear your "national dress". We considered seeing if Jacob could get away in a pair of Levi's as "American national dress", but thankfully a friend came through with a borrowed tuxedo that was exactly Jacob's size.

Prior to the ball start we met for coffee and cake at Landtmann's, a classic Viennese cafe close to the Hofburg Palace, where the event was held. I may be sentimental about my family's history in Vienna (I have pictures of my Grandparents dancing at the famous Vienna Opera Ball in the 1970's), but sitting in that cafe made me feel like I was connected to ball-goers spanning across hundreds of years, all meeting in this particular cafe for a glass of Sekt before going to dance the night away.

And the truth is, in many ways, it seemed like the balls hadn't changed a bit since then - except that, back then, everyone would have known how to dance. And no one would have been taking cell-phone selfies. Our group had met the week previously to practice our two steps, rhumbas, and viennese waltzes, but unfortunately one evening of instruction was not enough for Jacob and I to counteract a lifetime of ignorance. (Although we tried, and had lots of fun)

The ball itself was made up of several halls, each offering different types of music. In the main hall an orchestra played the classic Viennese waltzes and ballrooms dances, while adjunct rooms offered Jazz, Latin, an IAEA talent show (which I avoided), a Beatles cover band, and a "silent disco". The silent disco (relatively new to the ball repertoire I am sure), consisted of people putting on headphones and self consciously dancing to the music no one else can hear. If someone understands the appeal, feel free to explain it to me. 

Jacob and I stuck mostly to the Beatles cover-band and main hall, though our dancing skills were far from impressive. Thankfully, however, with so many cultures and walks-of-life represented, there was by no means an expectation that everyone would be an expert at the dizzying Viennese waltz. A galant and practiced dancer from our group did ask me to dance once or twice, which provided me with the distinct sensation of, "Oh. So that is how this dance is supposed to go". That is, I imagine, the advantage of wearing a long and flowing skirt to a ball - no one can see that your feet are just trying to keep up.

Aside from the dancing, which many people were very serious about, the main pastime of the ball was people-watching. The parade of gowns and national dress was truly spectacular; an activity that could have easily occupied you for the entire evening. 

Our group had reserved a table away from the main area of the ball so that we had a quiet place to retreat to whenever we wanted to rest our feet and escape the crowds for a few minutes. I was surprised when I picked up the menu of food that could be ordered to your table. The menu was short and did not contain the types of foods I would have imagined at a ball. Where was the beef tartare and caviar? Why was there goulash and sausage with bread on the menu? 

Come to find out, sausage with bread (with champagne of course) IS traditional ball food. This is, in fact, the true Viennese way to eat at a ball - and I love it. There was something so refreshing about pairing the opulence of a ball with the same no-nonsense food you would order from a Wurstelstand on the street. 

Scattered throughout the evening were ceremonies, such as the entrance of the debutantes, all dressed in white, to dance a Viennese waltz. At midnight everyone is taught to dance a quadrille by the Master of Ceremonies. Our group had stationed ourselves in the main hall well before midnight for this particular dance - only to find that a 70's cover band with afro wigs was performing past their time slot. At 20 past midnight we left the main hall during "It's Raining Men", and the quadrille began 15 minutes later. 

Jacob and I lasted until roughly 1:30 am before we decided to call it a night. By our party standards, 1:30 definitely qualified as dancing the night away. 

By the way, you can read more about the balls here - it is really fascinating: Vienna Ball Season. (And more here if you are really interested.) 

Three Days in India: Pt. 2

Continuing from Three Days in India: Pt. 1... 

 

Day Two

The taxi arrived at 3:45 am to take us to the airport for our city transfer flight. By 4 am we were speeding down the road on the dark, mostly deserted streets when suddenly three large moving shapes loomed ahead. Camels! I stared open mouthed as we passed three boys riding three enormous camels along the side of the road and the opening words of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody floated through my head. “Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy…”

On the way to the airport I was informed that I would need to show my itinerary as proof of my flight before I would be allowed to enter the airport. Not having the itinerary printed or available Internet, I had no way of accessing the information. Ahead of me, my colleague showed the itinerary on his phone and was waved through. My turn. I explained that I couldn't show it, but did have an email with a taxi itinerary that mentioned Hyderabad.

"Sorry", the guard said, "you can't enter. You have to go print your itinerary." 

"Where?", I asked.

The guard pointed in the general direction of "outside the airport". 

No way was I going to leave the airport to track down an internet signal and printer at 4 AM in a city in India I knew nothing about. I argued with the guard and when my colleague joined in the fuss the guard apparently decided we weren't worth the trouble and let me in. After passing through security and receiving my boarding pass (funny, it's really easy to prove you have a flight once they let you IN the airport...), we went to the gates to wait.

Our flight status was posted as "Check in", so we kept an eye on the screens for update. 15 minutes into our wait the intercom came on: "Will Wolfgang Platz and Chelsea White please report for last call boarding immediately." What in the world? They never even posted a gate! We walked the 3 meters to the gate mentioned and they sent us down a flight of stairs - directly onto the Tarmac.

It was like a scene from Casablanca. Small groups of people streamed to various planes in the foggy morning air. I half expected to witness a tearful goodbye between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. We were directed to a small plane on the edge of the Tarmac, ducked under the propellers, and climbed in to an already full and boarded plane.

Once again the question arose: when did they announce the gate? How did all these people get here?!

Our short flight landed us yet another world away. This time the air was pleasantly cool, the airport modern and clean compared to Pune. The landscape was filled with jasmine trees, plumerias, and oleander. The roads were well kept and traffic showed a tendency to slightly more order.

Thankfully, our agenda for that day was simple: arrive in Hyderabad and check into our hotel, once again located on a campus of the tech company hosting us. 

We arrived to the guard house at the campus entrance knowing exactly what to expect. We stepped out of the taxi with our laptops already in hand, ready for the 6 security guards standing behind the desk to assess our threat level. Badges were issued within 10 minutes and we were waved through. The Hyderabad campus didn't seem to take security as seriously as Pune…I don’t think anyone even checked the taxi undercarriage.

The campus at Pune had been impressive, but it was already clear from our drive that Hyderabad was a wealthier city overall. The grounds were gorgeous; lushly landscaped with meandering paths cutting through glades of palms, fountains, and flowering trees to shiny glass building complexes. 

The air smelled like jasmine and plumeria, and there - just a glorious 20 meters ahead - was a hotel where I could face-plant onto a large, soft bed and go back to sleep. After two room changes and a small negotiation of “Excuse me, this room doesn’t have internet, how do you expect me to work?” with the hotel clerk, I did just that, my hard-won Wifi password clutched in my hand.

I woke up ravenous three hours later at 11 AM and feeling like I was wasting my short time in India. All I had eaten so far was a spicy chicken and cabbage wrap thing purchased from an airport kiosk 7 hours earlier. Thankfully I had been given multiple bags of a regional sweet-spicy pastry to take back to the office in Vienna - that would make for as good a meal as any. Munching happily away, I soon noticed the slogan written on the bag. 

Mmm…nothing like the taste of cannibalism. 

Around noon my colleague and I met up to go on a shopping excursion. We got the name of the nearest mall and waved down a Tuktuk on the busy street outside campus. For the uninitiated (as I was), Tuktuks are an extremely common form of transportation in India (and many parts of Asia).

A hybrid between a taxi and a man-powered rickshaw, they are a cheap and effective way to navigate cities quickly. The back seat of a Tuktuk is designed for two people, though I don't think I saw anyone besides ourselves with less than 4 people crammed into the back. On a later excursion to pick up food for dinner that evening, an Indian colleague explained to me how, as a child, he and his friends would fit 20 children into the back of one Tuktuk. It sounded like it was a feat in human Tetris. 

Our ride to the mall was thrilling. The Tuktuks ride low to the ground, sans-seat belts and the sides of the car open to the air. Cars and busses make up maybe 40% of the general traffic, with the other 60% of Tuktuks and motorbikes cramming themselves into the crevices between the cars, one wheel up on the sidewalk just to get an edge on their neighbor at the next green light. It felt a bit like real-world Mario Kart, though the drivers were so skilled and confident you never had the chance to feel nervous. 

The mall was a shiny testament to globalization surrounded by tell-tale signs of a growing economy. We passed through security entering the mall (as was becoming standard procedure), while I was pulled aside by a female guard to be patted down in a curtained cubicle. My threat level assessed, I was free to start shopping. 

First thing first was food. My “taste of people” wasn’t holding me over too well. Frankly the thing I found most challenging about my short time in India was the need for hyper-awareness about food and drink. I am privileged enough to hardly ever think twice about whether something is safe for me to eat or drink, and often found myself having to slap my hand away from fresh fruit, vegetables, or tap water being offered. Having double and triple checked that my lunch order did not contain anything fresh (I was getting excited to eat a salad when I got home), we ate a nice lunch in the food court, fielding the stares of every other person at the mall. We were the only non-Indian people there. Being a minority - also something I have not experienced frequently in my privileged life.

The majority of shops employed their own security guards, who would manually check your bags upon entrance. One of the stores even had a mandatory bag-check to ensure shoppers couldn't squirrel anything away into the bags they were already carrying. I was surprised to stumble across an entire UCLA Bruins merchandise corner of a department store - apparently they are big fans of the Bruins in Hyderabad. 

After a couple hours of shopping we had a coffee from Dunkin Donuts on an abandoned outdoor terrace overlooking posh apartments on the waterfront and tarp-covered hovels at the base of a half constructed building

Back at campus I took the opportunity to explore. It was amazing how much more it felt like a university than a workplace. We passed a glorious looking pool and fitness center, an outdoor amphitheater where a staff talent show was taking place, and an outdoor yoga class. Re-entering the hotel lobby, I came upon a young man leading a group of women in aerobic exercises.

I settled back in my room, got some work done, and re-emerged to meet Vaibhav, an Indian colleague, to pick up food for dinner. As tired as we were, we had turned down any sightseeing options earlier in the day, but now I was getting antsy to see something other than a mall. Vaibhav was a gracious and knowledgable tour guide, answering all my dumb questions (Why is everything here in English? British colonization, duh.), and sharing stories from his life. 

My Austrian colleague, in true Austrian form, had requested we bring some beer back with dinner. Beer wasn’t technically allowed on campus, but my purse was large enough to smuggle it in, and, to be honest, I really wanted a beer too. We stopped at a liquor shop first, then had the Tuktuk follow us as we walked up the side of the road so I could see everything going on. 

I tried to take lots of pictures but was self conscious about taking the time to stop and set up a shot. We passed a flower stand and I bought a strand of gorgeously fragrant jasmine to wear in my hair. It cost me all of 20 cents. 

Dinner was to be ordered from a well known Biryani shop, the famous dish of the area. We passed through security entering the store, placed our order, and waited 15 minutes before being presented with more food than the three of us could possibly eat. 

Back at the hotel we crowded into the bathroom to transfer our beer into the plastic water bottles (“If anyone asks, it’s juice”), just like rebellious teenagers. We found a table outside and ate a messy but delicious dinner with our hands while my legs got steadily consumed by mosquitos. Only half way through dinner did I realize that it was Thanksgiving. I counted 29 bites on my legs that night. 

 

Day Three

The next day we were packed and out of the hotel for a day-long conference and a flight home in the evening. The conference took place at a large hotel across the city, the drive for which provided a lot of good photo opportunities.

The conference went very successfully without drama. 

A group of men from a local TV crew asked to take selfies with me (uhh…sure?), and I found an outlet Macgyvered with unlit matches and wire. It seemed to be working just fine. For the moment.

That afternoon we unexpectedly ran into a woman we had met at the conference in Pune two days earlier. She happened to be at the hotel to celebrate the wedding of a friend. In the evening, as we prepared to leave, I heard drumming of a wedding procession begin in the street outside. I ran out into the courtyard and climbed up onto a wall to watch as much as I could. My view was limited but the music was loud and vibrant. What I would have given to see the full thing!

Soon after, we were packed back into the taxi and whisked off to the airport. This time I had my itinerary ready to ensure I could enter the airport. Two flights, some failed attempts at getting upgraded to first class, and a great conversation with a Welsh man in Abu Dhabi later, we arrived home to Vienna at 6:00 AM. The first thing I did was buy a salad and fall straight into bed. 

Three Days in India: Pt. 1

At the end of October, as a large yearly work conference was wrapping up, the CEO of the company I work for came up to me and announced that he would like me to accompany the Founder of the company on a business trip to India. Would I be interested in going? 

I was dumbfounded - of course I was interested in going! But why me? What did they expect a "Marketing Specialist" like me to accomplish? As it turned out, my main responsibility was to do one of the things I like best: observe. I was to join the Founder of our company in attending two software conferences with the goal of getting a "feel for the market". Observe, interview people, attend presentations, take notes, and see if I could figure out a better strategy for reaching the market that exists in India. 

Challenge accepted. 

*I have very few good pictures from the trip as the majority of my time was spent in a hotel or in the car. Hopefully whatever pictures I have will help to round out the story. 

Getting From Point A to Point B

The flight to India was uneventful in all the best ways. I watched the sun set over Iran during 3 pm my time, a fiery sunset unlike any of the soft palates featured in Vienna. We landed in Abu Dhabi after dark, and but for some clues I could have just as easily been in Arizona as the UAE. A long bus ride took us to the main terminal, passing an overhang covering luxury cabs - a Rolls Royce pulling out of the drive ahead of us. Within the terminal we passed through a mall's worth of luxury shopping.

The UAE is a famously wealthy country with a penchant for luxury brands. I was struck by the disparity between those shopping, covered and uncovered Arab women and men (in the white robes and checkered head cloths I had only ever seen in movies), as they were surrounded by the silicon advertising of airbrushed models, all invariably Caucasian. Does it ever strike them as odd? Do they ever wish they would see a Chanel or Burburry ad featuring someone who looked like them? 

Our flight to India was delayed, meaning our slim chances of sleep were further shortened. Once we had disembarked the plane in India at 4 am, I was naive to think we were on the home stretch and sleep was in sight. A taxi would be picking us up from the hotel at 7:30, so if I was lucky I might get 2 hours of sleep.

But first we had to get through customs. 

The "foreigner" line was short, but operating so slowly that 50 people had cleared customs to our right before we even arrived to the desk. We were admitted through customs, then asked to show our customs declaration pink slip to a guard by the stairs. He looked at it and waved us on. Down the stairs we found another queue being aggressively guarded by a paunchy uniformed military man, with a red stripe finger-painted onto his forehead. He didn't speak any English so he augmented his communication skills with an extra dash of enthusiasm. Before we could move on to the luggage pick up, it would seem, we first had to have our hand luggage re-screened and our tired bodies metal detected. The metal detector was held together in parts with packing tape.

Once our luggage was retrieved we passed through another checkpoint, this time, a re-screening of our checked baggage - our final barrier to India. A taxi driver was waiting for us, and led us out into the warm humid early morning amidst an ongoing symphony of car horns. In Indian traffic it would seem, car horns are constantly in use. The honking doesn't seem to accomplish much besides providing the drivers a constant source of cathartic self expression. That being said, I didn't see any car crashes - a feat unto itself. I liked to imagine that the honking was actually just their way of saying hello to each other. 

Even in the dark 5 am morning there were many people out on the streets. The drive revealed a non-tourist-board-approved India: fading and threadbare infrastructure, decades of signs and placards ripped and plastered over, heaps of dirt, rock, and rubbish. Stray dogs and people roamed freely, even in the street. Sidewalks were few and far between. Glimpses of temples and monuments integrated into strip malls flashed by, including one infinite second into a low fluorescent lit room, where a man with a tambourine chanted loudly over a floor covered by the praying bodies of men in white.

Our entry to the technological sector of Pune was met by an unbelievably large neon sign stating "Persistence",  illuminating the atmosphere with red light pollution glow. I learned that Persistence is the name of one of the local companies when a handful of their delegates arrived to the business conference the next day. That knowledge did little to make the sight of the monumental glow on the horizon less surreal. 

It was nearing 5:30 am and we finally had arrived to the campus of the company that was hosting us. A massive and powerful enterprise, the company has Google-esque campuses all over India, equipped with guest houses where we would be staying. We drove to the gate where we were stopped by a security guard and made to get out of the car so he could look at our laptops. 

He shook his head at us as his colleague held a mirror on a stick underneath the taxi carriage to check for explosives. "You need a pass". Frustrated but too tired to argue, we drove back down to another gate and entered the office, where a woman who was quite happy to take her time checked our trip details, confirmed our contact at the company, reviewed our passports, wrote down the serial numbers of our computers, and finally issued us a guest pass with our computer serial number printed on it. While this took place another guard held a mirror under our taxi.

Passes in hand, we drove back up to the first gate where the same guard as before re-checked our computers. We were waved onto the grounds while I asked my colleague why the company was so concerned about our computer serial numbers. It remains a mystery. Once at the guest house we passed through another security checkpoint. Our luggage was scanned as a guard reviewed the serial number on our laptops, compared the number to the one on our guest passes, and wrote the number down in a thick black ledger. It was past 6 am and we were finally free to check in.

Day One

I got ten minutes of sleep before I had to get up to prepare for the conference. My first impression of the Pune streets did not change now that the sun was up. Even more people thronged the streets, crossed haphazardly, or casually checked their cellphone while leaning against highway middle barriers.

Cows had been added to the mix now, standing just as casually as the people on the side of the road, munching on trash, far from any sign of grass. One white cow stood motionless in the middle of the road itself as traffic diverted around it. No one seemed to care.

We passed slums that looked like beaver dams made of rubble, and searched for the most daring biker (a barefoot family of 5 on a motorbike won that day).

We drove through the gate to the hotel hosting the conference and entered another world.

This world had two story waterfalls, lush palms, uniformed waiters and crystal chandeliers. This world felt odd being so close to the one just outside. We left that world at 5:30 pm and by 6:30 I was back in my room, finally able to sleep for the first time in almost 40 hours.

To be continued...