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...

A Year of Vienna in Review

Dear world, I have not forgotten about you! I know I have been mysteriously absent the past several months - a result of a season so busy that it left Jacob and I trying to catch our breath and wondering how to slow down. 

The past few months have had their fair share of adventure - a hike through rain and snow up to an alpine lake, a whirlwind weekend in Tuscany to visit dear friends, an unexpected trip to India...

That's right, I said India. I spent Thanksgiving week there on a business trip, and as you can imagine, it was quite the memorable experience. I have a blog post on India nearly ready to go, so you can expect that coming your way soon. 

Our busyness forced us to reprioritize our schedules and lives, as we came dangerously close to burning out this past autumn. I have made the decision to stop actively pursuing my photography side-business, opting to be more intentional about taking time to rest instead. Jacob and I have taken up Thai Boxing as a sport, and take classes at a gym several times a week - a routine that is as good for our mental and emotional happiness as it is for our bodies. Then of course there is work, church, friends, German class, and all the little odds and ends that add up to a full and abundant life. 

And friends, we DO have an abundant life. It is not easy, but for all of its hardships we are still blessed beyond belief. Life is only getting more exciting and full of possibility as we grow, learn, and draw closer into the heart of our God and Father. 

I recently spent some time scrolling through pictures from 2015 - little snapshots taken here and there that never made it to Facebook or any wider audience. A handful you may have seen before - snagged to supplement a blog post, but most are just from little moments from day to day life and friends. Here, in chronological order (as best as I can remember), is our 2015 in review:

A Year of Vienna in Review


The "Refugee Crisis" And Choosing Love

Austria has been in the news a lot lately. There is no way I can write a new blog post without addressing the stories that have brought the word "Austria" to far more people's lips than could ever identify it on a map. 

It is a hard thing for me to talk about the "Refugee Crisis" in a forum like a blog, partly because I think these conversations are best held in-person, but mostly because I feel extremely under-informed on the topic as a whole. Yes, I have read countless news stories, I have seen the refugees with my own eyes, I have scrolled through people's opinions on either side of the issue. But have I immersed myself into the story, studying the issues from every side, examining the policy and politicians, weighing their claims, and interviewing the refugees themselves? No, although I would like to. 

 Two of the many, many signs displaying public support for the refugees arriving in Europe. 

Two of the many, many signs displaying public support for the refugees arriving in Europe. 

There are three things in regards to this situation that I can confidently state however: 

1.) Vienna has traditionally stood on the boundary of East and West, an epicenter of world-changing history. It is this pivotal and influential positioning that made Vienna so crucial in WWII, in the Cold War, and now as a major UN and NGO hub. My Grandparents, living in Vienna in the late 60's, witnessed the Prague Spring of 1968, where Czech refugees poured over the borders into Austria. My father remembers his school, the American International School of Vienna, being temporarily shut down and repurposed to house refugees. My point is, this isn't a new story. It is the repetition of an old story, stories that have shaped nations and shifted perspectives. I, for one, am grateful that I get to see it firsthand and be a part of history in the making. 

2.) When you boil down all the arguments for or against the refugees, you end up with one of two things: fear or love. In the end, all of the decisions we make, the actions we take, the things we choose to believe, about anything, are born out of either fear or love.

 Cots lined up ready to receive weary refugees in the Salzburg train station. 

Cots lined up ready to receive weary refugees in the Salzburg train station. 

Many are afraid of the impact such an influx of people will make on the economy, housing, infrastructure, culture, public safety, etc. These are understandable concerns, and not ones to be taken lightly. I don't know the answers to those concerns and I am certainly grateful I am not in charge of making those decisions. My prayers for wisdom are with those that are. But in the little I know, and the little I have seen firsthand, I am so proud to see my city overwhelmingly choose to love every refugee who comes our way instead of fearing them.

So many Viennese have volunteered their time that new volunteers have been turned away from the train stations and camps. So instead, those people go shopping, coming back with bags of clothes, toiletries, and other items the refugees need.

The day the borders opened I was on a train from Salzburg to Vienna. I disembarked the train onto a platform crowded with thousands of refugees - it took nearly 10 minutes just to inch off the platform. Standing on a low wall near the front were some young refugee men, holding signs saying, "Thank you Austria, with my whole heart, love Iran"..."love Syria". I was so proud to be able to shake that man's hand and welcome him, to let him know that we were glad he was here. 

 Volunteers waiting with food and water in the Salzburg train station for the next wave of refugees to arrive. 

Volunteers waiting with food and water in the Salzburg train station for the next wave of refugees to arrive. 

3.) I am continually struck by the fact that 70-odd years ago Europe had their own mass exodus of refugees fleeing war. I was so touched to see Germany be the first to open their borders, the first to welcome those whose lives had been torn apart. The shadow and shame of WWII still hangs heavy over many, but oh! What beautiful redemption, that they can now open their arms to those in need.     

So, to conclude. If I have been given the gift of seeing history-in-the-making firsthand, how do I make sure I don't waste it? I have no idea. I am still trying to figure that out. But I do know that, no matter what, I am choosing to love. 

 Medical aid workers prepping their work site. 

Medical aid workers prepping their work site. 

An Adventure at the Thermal Baths in Budapest

The last few weeks have been exhausting. It hasn't been anything in particular - it's just life you know. Does life ever actually slow down? Wait, don't answer that. I don't think I want to know. 

The past weeks have been tiring and wonderful. Jacob and I joined a boxing gym (check that one off of the life-long-dream and things-I-need-to-master-before-I-can-become-a-spy lists) and it is thoroughly kicking our butts into shape. It's awesome. 

Our careers are advancing in wonderful ways (catch that? I said career because that is what we actually have now...not just jobs). Sometimes I need to remind myself how ridiculously blessed I am to be 26 and have a career - that is increasingly rare these days. 

And the past few weeks have made my head spin. Like when the elderly lady sitting across from me on the subway after work the other day started yelling at me for have "two cell phones" (my iPod and my cell phone were in my hand). I didn't catch everything she said but from the context and the sympathetic looks I was receiving I am assuming it was something along the lines of "damn youths and their technology". 

So rather than telling you about my recent boxing class inspired revelation of "I didn't even know it was possible to sweat that much", I am going to tell you a story from when Marcia, Jacob's mother, Jacob, and myself went to Budapest for a weekend. 

So, a few weeks ago that I wish I could teleport to and re-live, Marcia, Jacob, and I took off for a weekend in Budapest. We knew Marcia would love it. Not only is it a beautiful and fascinating city, it is host to more amazing restaurants, cafes, and thermal baths/spas than can be adequately enjoyed in just one weekend. We did our best though. We ate and drank our way through Budapest, soaking in the sunset light on the Danube on a wine-tasting river cruise, then soaking in the thermal waters of one of the traditional spas Budapest is known for. 

 The view from our boat on the river cruise. 

The view from our boat on the river cruise. 

 A Hungarian specialty called Langos. It is deep-fried bread with your choice of toppings - in our case, sour cream, cheese, bacon, onion, and tomato. It was delicious in a "I don't care if I die young" type of way until your body suddenly wakes up and realizes what you are eating. Tried it once, never again. 

A Hungarian specialty called Langos. It is deep-fried bread with your choice of toppings - in our case, sour cream, cheese, bacon, onion, and tomato. It was delicious in a "I don't care if I die young" type of way until your body suddenly wakes up and realizes what you are eating. Tried it once, never again. 

 A daytime walk through Szimpla Kert, the popular bar that first kicked off the "Ruin Bar" movement that caught like wildfire in Budapest. In case you are wondering, "Ruin Bar" is short-hand for a bar whose aesthetic was determined by an "anything goes" mentality and items salvaged while dumpster diving. Think things like half-sawed off bath tubs, detached car chairs with the stuffing coming out of gashes in the fabric, marker graffiti on the walls, etc. 

A daytime walk through Szimpla Kert, the popular bar that first kicked off the "Ruin Bar" movement that caught like wildfire in Budapest. In case you are wondering, "Ruin Bar" is short-hand for a bar whose aesthetic was determined by an "anything goes" mentality and items salvaged while dumpster diving. Think things like half-sawed off bath tubs, detached car chairs with the stuffing coming out of gashes in the fabric, marker graffiti on the walls, etc. 

It was our last day in Budapest, and after so many cumulative hours of walking we decided the best use of our time would be a nice long soak and a massage. We went to a wonderful bath called Rudas, styled like a Turkish Hammam. The main room had 5 baths, one in the center, with four in each corner of the room of ascending temperatures. It smelled a bit in there, that sulfuric smell that is somehow acceptable when you can convince yourself the waters are good for you. 

We hopped from bath to bath, occasionally stopping to go into the steam sauna. (Bathing suits were required for those of you who will wonder.) The steam sauna was an experience in itself. The first time I went in I completely fell apart. I pride myself on being someone who would be level-headed in a crisis, but apparently 122 Fahrenheit of concentrated heat is too much crisis for me to handle. Jacob and Marcia had gone in ahead of me - Marcia had sat down like a normal person, whereas I froze in place, trying to breathe, struggling to open my eyes, and unsure of what to do because every move I made just made me hotter. After standing there like an idiot for (what felt like) an eternity, Marcia told me to come and sit down by her. I sat down and realized Jacob was missing - the steam was too thick to see him. I called out for him (sorry other sauna-users, it was too hot to be courteous), and he called back - he was on the floor. That's right folks, Jacob had gone into the sauna and pretty much immediately just lay down on the floor, knowing that would be where it be coolest. The only problem was that if he passed out from the heat we would never find him. 

The bucket of cold water waiting for us on the other side of the sauna was such an endorphin rush that the pain was forgotten. Somewhat like childbirth, or so I hear. 

After a couple of masochistic trips to that sauna, it was time to prep for our 30 minute "aromatherapy" massage. Marcia had treated us each to a massage and we were all slotted in at 2:00 PM. Thirty minutes prior to our massage we decided to go to the "resting room" (basically the nap room, if we were in Preschool), which gave us a clear shot to the massage area. 

 The hallway to the massage rooms. 

The hallway to the massage rooms. 

Marcia was getting increasingly nervous. Jacob had checked out the massage area earlier and reported seeing a burly Hungarian man massaging someone in one of the rooms. From where Marcia was positioned she could see three middle aged man chatting in the corridor. They in themselves were a motley bunch - one was in the spa uniform, another was pot-bellied and wearing nothing but a towel, and the third was blind, shirtless, and wearing white booty-shorts while holding his cane. Assumedly the blind guy and shirtless dude were two regulars chatting with one of the staff. 

Time came for our massage and we went over to the trio standing in the hallway by the massage area. After a moment of confusion a second man in a spa uniform scanned Jacob's massage receipt, said something unintelligible to us, and promptly walked away.  

Moment of silence. 

Then the blind guy speaks up. "Follow me!", and leads Jacob down the hallway, tapping his cane to the entrance of the massage room. 

I stood there, slightly petrified. But before I could think, the man wearing nothing but a towel turned to me and grunted. Oh dear. I would have preferred the blind man. I followed the towel-man into a massage room. 

Marcia got the guy wearing a uniform. 

Now from here I will break it up into our individual experiences: 

Jacob: Jacob was told to lie down on the table, so he did - on his back. The blind man tapped around a bit with his hands, and then went "No! Turn over!". So Jacob did. The blind man tapped down to his foot, then started massaging. Jacob's verdict: overall, it was a good massage. Perhaps a bit unorthodox, and the harmonica music playing on the radio was odd, but it was good.

Chelsea: Frankly, I was terrified. When given a choice of whether to lie on my stomach or back, I opted for my stomach and came up with a plan. Anything gets fishy and I will kick him in the face and make a run for it. Thankfully he left the door open so that helped a bit. But still. Secondly, that was not aromatherapy. That was just plain old unscented oil. 

Now, I am not sure what the European standard for massages are, but I have come to expect certain things: a relaxing atmosphere, quiet, minimal distraction. Not so here apparently. To my naked masseuse's credit, nothing unseemly happened, unless you consider him placing a hand on my back and my butt and shaking vigorously unseemly.

There was, however, some guy standing in the door way having a conversation with my masseuse, as I listened to the harmonica music wafting from Jacob's room. At one point I opened my eyes and in the plastic room-divide could see my reflection as my masseuse massaged my neck with one hand, other hand on his hip, as he engaged in passionate conversation with the guy standing in the doorway. 

Marcia: As soon as Marcia saw Jacob walking away with the blind masseuse, and myself with the wearing-a-towel-is-he-naked? guy, she couldn't stop giggling. She followed her fully clothed masseuse to the room and lay down on the massage bed, trying to stop laughing. In the end she had to imagine her husband (Jacob's dad) dying to stop giggling during the massage. 

The moment we all saw each other though...

The Hungarian massage we will never forget. And truthfully, the funniest story I have had to share in a while. Budapest never disappoints. 

 

Recipe: Summer Radish Tartines & Aperol Spritzers

It has been a blisteringly hot summer. The hottest summer, in fact, in Austria's recorded history (and they started recording some time in the 1700s, so that's a big deal). Most Austrians will tell you that a summer will contain one or two days where the thermostat is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit - this summer, we are nearing on two months of it. 

It has not just been Austria though. All of Europe is suffering from the heatwave, and parts of the Middle East are reporting mind-numbing figures like 165 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The dog days of summer indeed. (I am SO excited for Autumn.)

Until then however, Jacob and I have been enjoying a luxury few Viennese have: air conditioning. Yes, we have air conditioning. Not just one, but three air conditioning units, meaning to me that the previous tenant had a fixation on hyper-cooled air. We are so grateful. 

Even with the air though, many of the 100 degree days (with a relatively high humidity point) have been spent trying not to move and certainly trying anything to avoid turning on the oven or stove.

I like finding recipes that makes my heat-avoidance look glamorous rather than lazy. These Radish Tartines have become one of my go-to recipes this summer, and at this rate, will still be in the repertoire even after my oven and I have made amends. 

The recipe I have included is the "fancy" version, though I will share the "I'm hungry now" version too, which is just as good: bread, radishes, cream cheese, salt, and olive oil. The combination is simple, light, refreshing, and filled with beautiful layers of contrasting textures and grassy-creamy flavors. 

Then you need something to drink. Overall I am not a huge fan of spritzers - I tend to like my alcoholic beverages to taste like alcohol, not fruit juice. This spritzer is the best of both worlds - tangy, sweet, refreshing, with multiple nuanced layers and a slightly bitter finish from the Aperol. Pair the Radish Tartines with this Aperol Spritzer, and you just may forget about the heat for a little while.  

 



Things I Love About Living In Vienna

Jacob's mother, Marcia, arrived for a two week visit last Saturday, and I can tell you - she is one happy momma. We are pretty happy kids as well. We have already packed in an incredible amount of sight-seeing and eating into the short time she has been here, and somehow the conversation always swings back to this question: "Isn't Vienna great?!". 

It is especially meaningful for us to experience Vienna through Marcia's eyes and vice-versa. Jacob's parents (and mine too for that matter) supported us all the way through the thinking/praying/planning process of moving to Vienna - even though it was an unfamiliar place for them and meant we would be settling far away from California. Now, after continuing to support us through all of the ups and downs of the move, Marcia can finally meet the Vienna that we fell in love with. 

On the flip-side, as we approach nearly a year of living in Vienna, the "tourist-vision" has worn off. We no longer look at places through the lens of a tourist: on vacation, a little disoriented, and surrounded by new and unfamiliar sights. Now when we walk the city, a network of correlations, petty annoyances, memories, and to-do lists crowd in and color our perspective. In my opinion neither perspective is bad in itself, but my ideal is a good mix of familiarity (to keep from getting burned out) and strangeness (to keep from getting stuck in a rut).  

Marcia helps us to see the city through fresh eyes even as we give her the "insider's tour" of Vienna. We discussed impressions of the city over cake and coffee today at Demel (the famous patisserie to the former imperial court), and began to make a list of things we like most about the city.

Now before I get to the list, I have to throw in a substantial caveat: It's no secret that I love living in Vienna. Every now and then I am hit by a wave of gratitude and perspective for where I am. Jacob and I have not forgotten the pain and frustration of waiting to move. We spent two years praying, searching for opportunities, and dreaming of a future in a place we barely knew. The one thing we did know? Vienna was calling, and God was telling us to go. It was not an easy time.  I have said before how blown away I am by God's provision. We quickly made dear friends, found a wonderful church, work, an apartment...I've said it so many times I must sound like a broken record. The truth is, I'm not "over it" yet, I'm still in awe of God's goodness. 

1. Walking 

I LOVE not needing a car. It's true that most cities have at least some public transportation available, but Vienna is on another level. The public transport is so good that you can be nearly anywhere within the city in under 40 minutes. My commute is 30 minutes total, 20 of which is spent walking. I can walk to all of my shopping places, and be in the heart of downtown Vienna in less than a 10 minute walk. Added bonus - public transport is quite cheap here compared to many areas of Europe. Buying a Jahreskarte (year card that allows you full access to public transport in Vienna proper) for €365 certainly beats paying for each ride on the London Tube. Very occasionally I miss the conveniences of a car, but I honestly think that should we move somewhere where a car was necessary again, I would miss walking everywhere quite a bit. 

 Jacob and I lugging home potted trees on the subway. 

Jacob and I lugging home potted trees on the subway. 

2. Living Outside

I have always wanted to live in a city, and as far as cities go, Vienna is a pretty ideal one. It's small enough to feel intimate and manageable, but big enough that we are still discovering new areas, streets, and pretty courtyards. As the weather has warmed the city has sprung back to life. The cafes have set up their outdoors terraces, and groups of people loiter in the city squares long after sunset chatting and drinking beer. Festivals and events pop up on virtually every corner (or so it seems), as if all anyone is looking for is yet another reason to lounge around outside. 

San Diego is rightfully famous for it's impeccable weather - a fact that I miss in the dead of an Austrian winter when I haven't seen sun in two weeks. But the flip-side of having imperfect weather is that you are all the more grateful for sun and warmth when you do have it. No one wants to waste what may be the first perfect day in weeks, so no one does.

On that note...

3. Parks

Having never lived in a city before, I had never before appreciated the value of a good park. Granted there were parks in the suburbs, but those tended to be populated by the homeless and pot-head kids hiding from their parents. Parks in Vienna are wonderful. In Vienna, you don't just walk through a park. You meander through, enjoy the sites, find a sunny spot, then flop down on the ground and take a nap. Or play lawn games. Or sit and chat with friends while drinking beer (you can drink in public here - it's awesome). Parks are well-kept (I am amazed at how large the city's flower budget must be...they have replanted flower beds three times since spring) and well used. 

4. A Small Refrigerator

"Everything in America is bigger", the old cliché goes. And while that may not be true across the board, when you compare our refrigerator with the one we had in the States...it is undeniably true. Our apartment came equipped with a half-size refrigerator, the size college kids put in their dorm rooms. That fact that our apartment came equipped with a kitchen at all was a blessing - in Austria kitchens are considered "furniture" and are often moved out right along with the couch.

While at first Jacob and I worried whether the tiny refrigerator would suffice, upon falling into the rhythm of European life, our fears were quickly put to rest. Europeans tend to grocery shop for a couple of days at a time, rather than the American habit of stockpiling for the week. It makes sense in America - often you have to drive to the grocery store, which can take up a ton of time out of your post-work routine. Here however, with a grocery store a stone's throw from our apartment, realizing "shoot, I forgot the milk", isn't such a big deal. 

5.  Church bells

There are at least three churches within a short walk from our apartment, among them being Karlskirche, one of the most famous churches in Vienna. On Sunday morning, Christmas, Easter, and any given Catholic holiday, the church bells will ring in a glorious cheerful cacophony. I love quiet Sunday mornings when I can drink a cup of coffee and listen to the church bells calling the people to worship. I love Christmas morning when the church bells ring in a seemingly endless announcement of Christ's birth. I know the angels are singing along with the bells, and I will never grow tired of hearing them. 


A Week in Southern France

In early June Jacob and I took our first vacation in years. You may not have seen us for a while, so here is a picture of us: 

I have been putting off writing this blog post because, to be quite honest, perfect and amazing trips don't make for good stories. So if you are reading this post, it is likely because you know us, you a dreaming of the south of France, you are supremely bored, or a combination of the three. 

We were headed to the south of France to meet my parents and spend a week unwinding in the countryside. As most of you already know, my mother is French, and we still have a good deal of family in the area of Languedoc-Roussillion. My mother inherited the house that my grandfather built, a home which has been the setting of my childhood summers for the majority of my life. Jacob and I spent a month at that house three years ago during our six-month adventure around Europe, and frankly, it was a difficult time. 

As excited as I was to show Jacob the places of my childhood, we realized upon arriving that it simply wasn't the same without family. The house was too large for the two of us. We felt aimless and isolated. We were excited to leave the house behind. 

This time however, would be different. We would be joining my parents there, and Jacob was looking forward to experiencing the house and that area of France through my parent's eyes. It was a chance for France to redeem itself to Jacob. A chance for him to get a taste of the France that I know and love. 

It was also a change to unplug and take a real vacation - a very different experience than taking a whirlwind trip to Barcelona or other exotic destinations. I have found as I travel that there is a very distinctive separation between "travel" and "vacation". A vacation presupposes relaxation. Walking so far that your toes bleed is not relaxation. That's travel. 

Anyways, we landed in Nice, France after a short, uneventful flight from Vienna. Not having seen a sea or ocean in nearly a year, this sight was especially welcome: 

My parents picked us up in Nice and we went for a drive along the coast, stopping at a small cove to have a picnic and go for a swim in the gloriously warm water. I could have simply floated in that water all day. 

We arrived back to the house in the evening in time to catch the evening light setting over the mountains. With dinner I was reminded of something which, for me, set the tone of the entire week: I love French food. 

Ok, now before you go "well duh, you and the rest of the world", let me frame that statement for you a bit further. Yes, French cooking is delicious - but that isn't what I love so much. What makes French food truly magnificent is the ingredients. The cheese, the bread, the salami, the tomatoes, the peaches, the cuts of meat in the butcher shop, and even the tins of prepared foods like cassoulet and duck confit. For me, a quintessential French lunch is a hodgepodge of little bites - black olive tapenade, pate, salami, tomato salad, cheese, bread, and whatever else we choose to dig from the refrigerator. The thing that makes it so good is not our cooking method (as there is none), it is the remarkable quality of each item itself. 

The next day we went to one of the large grocery stores nearby and I felt like one of the gluttonous kids in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. I wanted to try everything. And there was so much available. Fresh oysters and fish, veal, rabbit, ten different kinds of tomatoes, fava beans, endive, etc. In the freezer section I was coming across seafood I had only ever heard of before (like razor clams), along with the ubiquitous French frog-legs and escargots, stuffed in their shells with the garlic parsley butter and ready to be thrown in the oven. (We may or may not have purchased a 48-pack of escargot for a shockingly inexpensive 7 Euros and spent the whole week eating them). 

Well before you get bored of my talking about food, I will get to the point. Being surrounded by such remarkable ingredients is inspiring - especially to someone who is marginally (hah) food obsessed as I am. I immediately asked my mother if I could take over planning dinners for the week. She agreed, bless her. She knows how to make me happy. 

Before I wax poetic over the food I made, here are some more pictures of things we did in France: 

Visited ridiculously picturesque little towns in the countryside:

Met my Uncle Olivier in the tiny village of Roquefort (where the Roquefort blue cheese comes from) for a picnic and tour of the cheese making caves. 

Went to the farmers market and purchased more beautiful food, including French salami (called Saucisson, though as a child I ate so much of it my family took to calling it "Chelseasson").

Visited the gorgeous area of Grizac, tucked high away in the mountains. Though it was my first time there (that I could remember), the area holds a special place in my family's heart: it is where my mother grew up attending summer camps, the place where she went to pray (at the cross, pictured below) and ask God if she should marry my dad, and the place where my eldest brother proposed to his wife, Tiffany. 

Smoked fresh oysters on the grill:

And finally, came back with a suitcase worth of goodies - wine, salami, cheese, homemade jams, and a treasure trove of items we had squirreled away in the house 3 years before when we traveled Europe:

And now, as promised, the food we made. The food that made me realize (again) that if I could spend my entire day around food, I would be one very happy Chelsea. Endless amounts of Escargots (but of course!), Mussels in a roquefort white wine sauce with French fries, grilled rabbit and root vegetables, Shellfish linguine, Smoked oysters on the half-shell, and my favorite of all: homemade lasagna stuffed with duck confit. I have discovered the joys of making lasagna and I am a changed woman. 

Now we are back in Vienna, enjoying the heat after a long winter and indecisive spring. Though it feels a bit truncated I am going to wrap this post up here simply for the sake of getting it out. It has been too long since the last post, I will try and make the next one more timely!

Eurovision 2015: The Good, the Ridiculous, and the Political

To the Europeans, that fact that most of America has never heard of Eurovision is astounding. 

Eurovision is a European tradition, a pop song contest that has launched the careers of some decently well known names in pop music like Celine Dion and Abba. Think of Eurovision as a cross between American Idol and the Olympics. Most countries in Europe (and some that are not actually in Europe...such as Israel and Australia) participate, holding in-country competitions to find the best singer and original song to represent their country in the international song contest. Then, for one week, all of the countries send their contestant to perform their original song and be voted as the reigning champion of Eurovision. 

Last year, Austria won Eurovision with their contestant Conchita Wurst, an elegantly dressed transgender with an immaculately groomed beard.

Conchita

Since then Conchita has become some sort of national icon, gracing the local tabloid-like newspapers on a near-daily basis, and somehow becoming the face of Bank Austria. Walk past any Bank Austria and you will see posters or commercials of Conchita going shopping (which requires money - so you see how it correlates to banking...obviously). 

Since Conchita was the winner of last year's competition, Austria was slated to host Eurovision the following year by default. 

Now I should mention that, almost entirely by accident, I had heard of Eurovision before moving to Austria. At some point in university I discovered old Eurovision videos on Youtube and spent an entire evening laughing my head off. Why? Well, in some respects Eurovision is quite different from any song or talent contest you have ever seen. In America it seems to be the accepted Modum Operandus to say, " You have 15 minutes of fame. Don't waste it". No matter what, you will do your best to impress and be perceived to be as amazing and celebrity-worthy as possible. Right? I mean, that is what I would do in that situation. Eurovision however, capitalizes on ridiculousness. Many countries know they don't stand a chance of winning, so rather than attempting to look "cool" they opt for looking downright insane. 

We're talking singing pirates, giant black cone hats, you name it. Why does a country choose to use their 3 minutes of original song, broadcasted to over 200 million viewers in this manner? I have. no. idea. 

But it does make for quite a show. 

And then there are the politics. Countries are not allowed to vote for their own contestant. Rather, each country can designate up to 12 points to the country of their choice, with the points (allegedly) being made up of 50% jury vote and 50% popular vote. As this insightful article pointed out, many countries vote quite predictably, designating points to countries as a "please don't invade us", or "sorry we invaded you".

Kind of like a pity vote... kind of. 

This year's contest had all the elements you would expect - changes were made in the city to accommodate the contest;  people were alternately pleased and disgruntled at the disruption to normal life, etc. etc. A giant viewing public area was set up in front of the Rathaus (city hall), and on the evening that the first semi-finals were taking place we crammed in with thousands of others to watch the spectacle live on jumbo-tron.

It was so much fun. The first evening featured the first 17-ish contestants performing their original song, complete with intricate light shows and choreography. Here is the rundown of my personal favorites:

My overall favorite song and choreography was Belgium:

The song that Jacob is STILL singing on a near-daily basis is from Israel: 

But the song I really wanted to win, on the sheer merit of it's "fun-value" was Serbia: (Skip ahead to minute 1:48 if you'd like to catch the point when Europe collectively exploded with excitement)

On the other hand however, some of the songs had a blatantly political twist. The songs aren't technically allowed to be politically charged, though of course a country could always simply deny a song's obvious political agenda. Take Russia for example. Russia's song was definitely not a brilliantly crafted piece of pro-Russian propaganda of "we believe in the dream" sung by a ridiculously gorgeous Russian model. Oh wait, nevermind. It was. 

After the two rounds of semi-finals the acts were pared down to 27 countries for the finals. Interestingly enough, the larger (or should I say, wealthier) countries go straight to the finals - Germany, Italy, Great Britain, etc. don't even perform live until the night of the finals. 

That weekend we had some dear friends from university visiting, and we couldn't have been more excited to introduce them to the wonderment of Eurovision. It is like being in the city hosting the world cup during the world cup. It's a big deal...for Europe, at least.  The night of the finals we prayed that the rain would hold off and went to join the other thousands upon thousands (I think I heard one of the moderators say 20,000) of people heading to the Rathaus to watch the jumbotron. People were decked out in favor of their countries. (I think these guys were pro-U.K.)

We got there at 8 PM, an hour before the show started, and faithfully stood in place, crammed in with all other 20,000 people until about 1:00 AM when the winner was finally announced. (Since it's not the point of the blog post, I will just let you know now that Sweden won with a dance song that sounds eerily like Avicii's "Hey Brother"). 

Here is the interesting bit though - remember how I was talking about the political charge of a number of the songs? Well Armenia wins the award for "most super-obvious political message", while simultaneously acting like a child who did not just get caught red-handed with their hand in the cookie jar.  The "love" song titled "Face the Shadow" performed by "Genealogy" with a chorus of "Don't deny", was supposedly not about the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Nope. Not political at all. 

To put it over the top however, were these guys, strategically weaving lines through the audience and waving enormous Armenian flags the whole. entire. show.  

11289940_10153249775786083_1799544462_n.jpg

Now, I understand that they were making a statement. Perhaps even a statement that desperately needs to be made. But in the moment, the statement looked like "We don't want you to watch Eurovision" more than anything else. 

Which is a shame because you really, and I mean really, should be watching Eurovision. 

 

 

Road Trip to Slovenia

There are two types of people who are going to read this blog post. The first are those people who know Jacob and myself and are just here to see the pictures. The second type are those who would like to take a road trip to Slovenia from Vienna and find themselves sadly bereft of useful information. 

To those of you who fall into the latter category: Welcome. I hope you find this information helpful as you plan your trip. Enjoy the pictures of my parents. 

To the rest of you, I've got your number. Here's a picture:

 Lake Bled. Jacob would like you to know that he took this picture. 

Lake Bled. Jacob would like you to know that he took this picture. 

My parents, Jacob, and I decided to rent a car and take a road trip to Slovenia during their second weekend visiting us in Vienna. Slovenia is not a terribly well known travel destination, though I will state loud and clear: IT SHOULD BE. Located on the southern edge of Austria, the Slovenian border lies just 4 hours driving time from Vienna, and less than an hour from Klagenfurt. 

The Republic of Slovenia, formerly known as Yugoslavia, was a communist state until the 1980s. Though technically part of the Eastern Bloc, Slovenia enjoyed far greater economic and personal freedoms under President Tito. Why do I bring this up? Because, surprisingly enough, those freedoms are quite noticeable. Venturing into other countries of the Eastern Bloc from Vienna (such as Hungary or Slovakia), there is often a dramatic shift immediately upon crossing the border. The effects of years of communism and political upheaval are immediately felt and visible. In Slovenia? Not a whit. 

The cities are clean, the countryside is beautiful, the tourism is well developed, the roads are excellent and thoughtfully planned...but I am getting ahead of myself. 

We left on Friday morning, driving from Vienna through Graz (on the E59 and E66), and around Klagenfurt. We stopped for lunch near Klagenfurt at a cute little gasthaus tucked up in the pre-Alpine hills, and sat outside reveling in sunshine and warm weather for the first time all month. 

After lunch and a good stretch we crossed the Slovenian border, at which there was virtually no official border crossing. As a civilian vehicle we drove right on through, without even being stopped for a passport check. Shortly after crossing the border we stopped at a gas station to buy a "Vignette", which buys us permission to drive on the roads (a week long pass is about €15)

Upon crossing into Slovenia, we immediately found ourselves in the Julian Alps. Though just as impressive as any Alps you might find in Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, etc. the Julian Alps are significantly less well-known. One of the most popular spots is Lake Bled, a fairy-tale-like lake and resort spot located just over the border from Austria. Within 45 minutes of crossing the border we were pulling up to our hotels perched on the side of Lake Bled.

 Bled Island 

Bled Island 

The iconic image of Lake Bled is the church that graces the tiny island in the lake's center. There is also a small town that has cropped up around the lake, and a castle set high above on a cliff over the water. All around the lake you can find quaint guest houses and hotels to stay in. Jacob and I were doing a hotel review for Our Man On The Ground, so we had arranged to stay at Vila Bled, the former Yugoslavian royal family's residence, and more recently, one of Tito's presidential residences. The hotel was magnificent - it felt like someone had given us the keys to a museum and said "have fun!". 

 The Vila Bled Hotel

The Vila Bled Hotel

The area around Lake Bled is well built up, including a paved (and lit) walking path around the entire lake. The popular activities include rowing to the island and ringing the "wishing bell" of the church, as well as climbing up the cliff to see the views of the lake and surrounding mountains from Bled Castle. 

We spent our first afternoon walking the perimeter of Lake Bled, which took about two hours (at a leisurely stroll, and stopping to take pictures every 30 seconds).

Bled 4
 A rare lone Chelsea sighting. 

A rare lone Chelsea sighting. 

Afterwards we had dinner and called it an early night. The next morning after breakfast we procured a row boat to head over to the island. Though designed for two people (ideally), we managed to cram all four of us into the canoe. We were a bit low in the water. Jacob muscled us to the island as I clutched my camera in fear of tipping over. The island is quite small, with exactly enough space for a church, a gift shop, a cafe, and a path that goes around the island. 

 A not so rare lone Jacob sighting. Prior to rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

A not so rare lone Jacob sighting. Prior to rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

Bled 7
 Jacob, after rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

Jacob, after rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

After our foray to the island we went back to shore, and opted to drive up to the castle for a view of the surroundings before heading out on a hike. Our first stop was Vintgar Gorge, an Alpine river gorge that is 3 km away from Lake Bled and absolutely worth a couple hours of your time. We had been informed the gorge was closed for the season, but decided to take a look at it anyway. Though the ticket office was shuttered there were plenty of people around, some of which were walking along the path barricaded by a wooden gate with a Slovenian word written on it. Not speaking Slovenian, we assumed the word meant "welcome", and hopped over the gate, following suit with the hikers ahead of us. 

Vintgar 1
Vintgar 2

The hike is about 3 km in total (but you will be stopping to take pictures every 10 seconds), and ends in Slovenia's largest natural waterfall. 

After spending a couple of hours gawking at the gorge we hopped back into the car to head deeper (and higher - much higher) into the mountains. We drove towards Bohinj Lake, where we had been told we could drive up into the mountains, then hike to some high Alpine pastures. The drive through the countryside alone would have made the trip worth it. The Alpine valleys were dotted with quaint villages and stunning panoramas. The roads were exceptionally well marked, and we found our way to the road winding up the mountains with very little trouble. 

Bohinj 1

As we got higher into the mountains snow began to appear in patches. Once we we had been climbing with the car for roughly 40 minutes, we hit a large spot of ice and snow on the road. As we did not have 4-wheel drive and figured that we were close to our destination, we chose to park the car and head forth on foot. 20 minutes of walking later we found ourselves at an Alpine pasture covered in moss and crocuses and decided that was a good place to eat our picnic lunch. 

Bohinj 2

As our lunch wore on we began to see more signs of life - a group of hikers passed through the base of the pasture, and a car passed on the road by us, evidently coming from a nearby gasthaus. Spurred on by the fact that we were evidently heading towards something, we finished our lunch and kept going until we came to a much larger Alpine pasture decorated with little chalets. We stopped into one of the chalets for warm apple strudel, gawked over the scenic view, and decided we had done enough hiking for the day. 

That evening we checked out of our hotels and drove 45 minutes to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia. Ljubljana is a quaint city, so charming and pretty that it almost seemed like a European Disneyland than a real place. Except - it IS real, which makes it about a million times better than Disneyland in my book. A river, channeled into a pretty canal, cuts through the center of the city, with plenty of outdoor cafes and weeping willows lining the water. 

That weekend they were having a craft beer and hamburger festival downtown, just a short walk from our hotel. We had such incredible gourmet hamburgers (about €5 each) and craft beer (about €3 each) for dinner the first night, that the second night we went back and ate more. 

Sunday morning we walked through the city, then headed out into the mountains for another hike. This time we went to a separate set of mountains, about 45 minutes from Ljubljana, and took a gondola up to a high Alpine pasture, still dotted with patches of snow. A steep 30 minute hike took us to the top of the mountain, where we were greeted with a vast network of trails, high Alpine chalets, and this incredible view. 

Slovenia 1
Slovenia 2

We stopped for lunch at the top of the mountain. It is amazing how much better some foods taste in their proper context. Typical German/Austrian/Slovenian food is delicious at any time, but high on a mountain after a grueling hike? It makes sausage, dark bread and sauerkraut that much better. 

Slovenia 3

After hiking around the pastures for the afternoon we took the gondola back down to the base of the mountain and headed back to Ljubljana. The following day we drove back to Vienna, refreshed, relaxed, and positively in love with Slovenia. 

Mark my words, you will soon see Slovenia at the top of those "Undiscovered treasures of Europe" lists. You heard it here first! 

To wrap up, here is a picture of what Jacob would look like if he was blind. 

Blind Jacob

Easter in Vienna

It has been a long time since I lived anywhere that experienced a proper spring. Winter felt like a slow marching eternity of grey days, and we learned to appreciate spots of direct sunlight wherever we could find them. Spring and winter battled it out in early April, throwing fits of rain, sleet, snow, and sunshine, all within an hour. Then, one day as I was walking through the park to work, TA DA! A tree that had been bare the day before had exploded into life overnight. 

Spring Trees

Let's back up a bit though. On April 1st, Jacob and I picked up these two from the airport. 

 They're my parents, which you probably had already figured it out.

They're my parents, which you probably had already figured it out.

They were here to visit us for the first time since we had moved here...8 months ago. (8 MONTHS AGO?! Wow. I hadn't even realized.) We were going to spend two lovely weeks together, sightseeing, catching up, and taking a road trip to Slovenia. 

But first, there was Easter. I won't claim that Austrian Easter traditions are terribly different from American traditions (unlike their Christmas celebrations), however they do go slightly crazy about eggs.  

I grew up decorating carefully hollowed out egg shells with paints and dyes before my mother arranged them as a table centerpiece for the Easter dinner. Here, the eggs are hung on little trees made of pussywillow branches bundled together. It would seem however, that many people choose to purchase their decorated eggs at Easter egg emporiums such as this: 

Easter Market

Easter Markets are set up in the public squares, this one in particular showcasing hundreds upon thousands of delicately hollowed out, hand decorated eggs. It took some tenacity to pick your way through the egg maze, knowing that one misplaced step or swing of your handbag could send a whole tray of eggs crunching into pieces (we did see it happen to someone - poor lady). I kept wondering what they did with all of the raw egg leftovers...world's largest omelette? 

Easter Egg

Another Austrian Easter tradition is to consume large quantities of dyed, hardboiled eggs. One can purchase the eggs from the grocery store pre-dyed and pre-boiled, then before eating them, you play a game where you put two eggs in a cage fight, with the losing egg being sacrificed and eaten. (I.e: You hit them together and the one that cracks first is the losing egg). 

Then of course, there are the sweets. Demel's, the epitome of Viennese confectionary, is always a wonderland akin to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, but at Easter it is especially true. The shelves were laden with intricately decorated molded chocolate bunnies and sheep, and large delicate hollow eggs made of meringue piped into swirling patterns. 

Meringue Egg
Demels

Finally, there is the music. Of course, Vienna, as the "city of music", always has something special to offer, even if it is simply listening to the church bells ring on Sunday mornings. On our way out of St. Stephan's cathedral we saw a sign for the Easter Monday mass, where they would be performing one of Mozart's masses at 11:00 am. On Monday we returned to St. Stephan's, surprised at how many people were present and the music well underway though we were only a couple of minutes late. Turns out that the mass had started at 10:15. Whoops. It was worth the effort regardless, if only for the opportunity to hear God's praises sung by a full orchestra and choir. 

Our second weekend together my parents, Jacob, and I had planned to take a road trip down through Austria to Slovenia where we would visit Lake Bled and Ljubljana. You know how you often see those articles touting Prague or Dubrovnik as "the undiscovered gem of Europe", although they are now far from "undiscovered"? Mark my words friends, Slovenia truly is the next "undiscovered gem of Europe". The country is breathtakingly beautiful, the roads and towns very well maintained, the people are wonderfully friendly, the food is delicious, and the costs very reasonable. In fact, it was all so fairytale-like, I imagine Slovenia could have been the real inspiration behind Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel. 

Let me give you a sneak peak of what I mean: 

Lake Bled 1
Slovenia 1
Slovenia-11.jpg

Feel like visiting yet? 

More to come on Slovenia!

Weekend in Barcelona

Ta-da!! Look, a blog post! I am jumping back on the horse, so to speak, with an attempt to be writing regularly once again. 
It was Jacob's 25th birthday on March 11th. Jacob would say differently, but in my opinion, I have never done birthdays for him terribly well. Granted, I have tried to plan successful birthdays, but something out of my control always went off. 

21st Birthday: Coincided with a university rock climbing trip, so his birthday was spent stuffed in the back of a van with college students. 

22nd Birthday: On our honeymoon, a coconut smashed the windshield of our rental car while driving. 

23rd Birthday: Carefully planned a Geocaching scavenger hunt, Jacob's GPS broke and his team couldn't geocache. 

24th Birthday: Planned to surprise Jacob with hang gliding over the ocean. The day-of, there wasn't enough wind to fly. Neither was there enough wind on the three subsequent time we attempted. Jacob never got to go hang gliding. 

25th Birthday: This year, I figured that it was "go big or go home". After considering for all of 30 minutes, I sat down at the computer and bought two tickets to Barcelona, Spain. No way was this birthday going to fail like the previous four. 

And, to take you out of your suspense (because I know you are just waiting for the dramatic story of how it all got ruined), everything went perfectly. I surprised Jacob with plane tickets on his birthday, letting him know we would be leaving for a weekend in Barcelona in just two days. The flight went without a hitch, we arrived downtown without getting lost, and our first meal was utterly fantastic. Either we broke our curse of horrible bad luck while traveling, or God mercifully spared Jacob another "meh" birthday. I'll take both explanations. 

Beyond that, I am afraid I don't have anything exciting to report. Flawless weekend getaways don't make for gripping narratives. But for those of you who are interested, here are some pictures and run down of our weekend. 

Saturday: Arrive in the afternoon, locate hotel. Lunch: Tapas and glorious Spanish red wine (I really like countries where it is socially encouraged to drink wine at lunch). Walk around. Circle the Familia Sagrada church. Walk more. Head over to the beach. Walk along the Mediterranean, get caught in a rainstorm. Take refuge in an Iberian ham shop. Eat Iberian ham. Go home, dry off. Drink a cocktail at a local bar. Go home and sleep. 

Barcelona1
Barcelona2
Barcelona3
Barcelona4

Sunday: Eat breakfast. Wander through the Gothic Quarter. Realize that it is the day of the Barcelona marathon, and clap for exhausted-looking runners as I ask myself why anyone would inflict that kind of misery on themselves. Walk up to the Alma Barcelona hotel where I had arranged for a restaurant review. Spend 3 hours eating and drinking like kings. (Truffle, brie and Iberian ham panini with Spanish champagne and raw oysters? I'll have another, thanks.) Roll out of the hotel and back down to the beach. More walking. Back to the hotel to nap, then out into the warm night air to track down a pre-dinner drink. Tapas for dinner, seated at 10:00 PM. Now we are really living the Spanish life!

Barcelona5
photo 4 (2).JPG
Barcelona7
Barcelona 8
Barcelona 9
Barcelona 10

Monday: Visit an outdoor market. Walk. Go clothes shopping for Jacob. Estimate that we walked roughly 40 km over the weekend. Hop onto the train back to the airport, and go home, exhausted. 

photo 1 (2).JPG