Tuesday, July 31, 2007

My Village

Here are some pictures of where I live. This historic steam locomotive is a small tourist attraction in the area, and I live directly across the street from it. Other than the smoke getting in our house, it hasn't been a problem. The other photos are just things that caught my eye - old interesting houses or the local horses and cows (I like to go back behind my house by the pastures with carrots for the horses, and I can usually get cows to come up to me too, even though they are generally pretty shy).

Pictures were taken last summer...I was playing with black and white film and my cumbersome professional camera (I usually carry a small digital camera for practical reasons). Of course, I had to resize them to fit Blogger, so you miss a lot of the detail.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

One quick plug for International Women's Club

For GK women who haven't joined the International Women's Club yet, I would highly recommend it. It's a great way to meet other women from various nationalities, and get to sample other cultures and foods. Some of the best friends I have made here have been through IWC, and being a member of IWC gave me the chance to go to Istanbul, one of the most incredible journeys I have ever experienced.

Here's the blog, where you can take a look at all the fun and the great food you can have. The lovely Tiffany, the American representative, is in charge of that blog, and she has another one with useful information about GK and the local area.




Here's a great picture of us American ladies in our 50's sock hop finery in an entry made in January. I am the one in the awesome catseye glasses who is kneeling in the front. Behold my coolness! Hehe.

Local Eats: The Good, The Bad, and the Downright Indigestible

I know at some point that some local area folks may stumble on this blog through word of mouth (thanks mostly to Tiffany, who linked to this blog via her Living in GK blog). Anyway...

Hi folks!

This post is prompted by the unpleasant meal my husband and I just had at Restaurant Mendoza, an Argentine steakhouse that opened recently in Gangelt. I believe it's owned by the same people who operate El Toro Napoli in Gillrath. The fact that both restaurants have identical menus would be a clue, and I do believe the old guy that was working at Mendoza this evening was the same one who waited on us at El Toro Napoli the one time we went there.

The good: the ambience was nice, for the most part (much nicer than at El Toro Napoli). It was nicely furnished and tastefully decorated. It's also HUGE...this restaurant can definitely accommodate crowds. The staff was also very nice, although the service was very slow. It took ages to get our food, which in hindsight, probably wasn't a bad thing.

The bad: the muzak made me want to stab out my eardrums with a fork. It didn't help that I was sitting right under the speaker. And it's too loud for soft conversation. I'm also not sure that Mendoza had English menus. But unless they offer, we don't usually get them...we can read German menus just fine.

The indigestible: Lance described his Spaghetti Al Forno as bland. I had gyro meat on macaroni with spinach and mushrooms, swimming in a cream sauce. The meat was full of gristle and fat and virtually inedible. The cream sauce was way too runny. I was also allowed a salad from the salad bar (they have an evening buffet), and the salad bar only had shredded lettuce, pickled cabbage, green beans, beets, corn and dressing. That's it. They served rolls with 2 kinds of spread (tzatziki and some kind of spicy pimento spread...I stuck with the tzatziki), but since Lance doesn't eat that stuff, he ate the rolls plain and said they weren't very good. Hence, the need for spread.

Of course, it's a steakhouse and we didn't eat steak. But after the meal we had, we won't be rushing out to try their steak anytime soon.

(I think it's safe to say that we don't endorse El Toro Napoli either...while the meal I had there was fine, Lance didn't get what he ordered, and I didn't care for the ambience).


Restaurants we do recommend:

- Carpaccio, Geilenkirchen (Italian): I'm sure you have all eaten here already, since most of you have probably stayed at the City Hotel. I won't bore you with the details.

- Il Genio, various locations (Italian): Everyone knows this place by now. I like the ones in Gillrath and Gangelt the best. There is also Paganini, a new Italian place in Rischden...I've eaten there twice and find it quite similar to Il Genio, although the muzak at this restaurant also makes me go stabbity. It was Andrea Bocelli the first time, which would've been fine at a lower volume. The last time, it was pan flute music.

- Cam Nguyen, Geilenkirchen (Chinese): My favorite lunch spot, and where my friends and I agree to get together 9 times out of 10. It's also very cheap.

- Brasserie Murphy's, Sittard (International): A place some friends and I discovered back in March when the restaurant where we wanted to eat was booked up. I'm glad we ended up here. The food was amazing and served with a very artistic presentation. I ended up having my birthday dinner here last month. The portion sizes are huge and the menu prices are extremely reasonable. Try the tilapia.

- O Portugues, Tuddern (Portuguese): Hands down, the BEST chicken I've ever had in my life. And the fried potatoes that accompanied it were heaven on a plate. This place is popular for its all you can eat shrimp (gambas) night on Tuesdays.

- Paella, Aachen (Spanish): I almost never eat anywhere else but here when I'm in Aachen. Their lunch buffet is TO DIE FOR, and it's less than 5 euros. Apparently, their tapas is very very popular, but they only serve that for supper, and I've only been at Paella during lunch.

- Cafe Madrid, Heinsberg (Spanish): My favorite place of all time. The tapas here is magnificent. I've never been to Spain, but my friends who have say that this tapas far surpasses anything they had there. The guy that owns the place (he is Spanish, by the way) gives fantastic service, and he's also a terrible flirt (it works...he feigned devastating heartbreak because I didn't want to try his coffee. So I did. And I don't even really like coffee. But the "Spanish coffee" was actually good). My first lunch here is one of my most memorable meals of all time. I was astounded by how good it was.

- Steakhouse Mujo, Geilenkirchen and Ubach-Palenberg (International): Okay...HERE is where we go when we're actually in the mood for steak. Although I've never actually had the steak here...the first time we ate here, I had the lamb. The second time, I had salmon. Both were very good.

- Side Grill, Geilenkirchen (Turkish): This is a hole-in-the-wall place (it's right next door to Cam Nguyen), but by gosh, they serve some of the finest doner kebap I've ever had. (Another good place is the doner kebap shack on the main drag in Birgden...I don't think it has a name).

- El Greco, Stahe (Greek): You've all seen this place...it's right on the B56. Their bifteki is wonderful. But you have to really love meat to eat here. I mean, you have to REALLY love meat. The last time I ate there, I got by with stuffed mushrooms from the appetizer menu and a small side salad (but the mushrooms were still stuffed with meat).

- El Comal, Brunssum (Mexican): This is probably about as close as you're going to get to the Mexican you can eat in the States. This is also likely to give you a huge stomach ache the next day. But hey, it was good. I've heard rumors of a mariachi band playing here on occasion. Ole! (By the way, I have eaten at the Mexican place in Aachen before - Sausalito's - some friends swear by this place. The one time I ate there, the food I ordered - a veggie tostada - was just weird. But it was still perfectly decent food).

Notice the lack of German restaurants on this list...we're not huge fans of German food (OH! THE! HORROR!). Besides, they're everywhere, and from my limited experience, the food at each one is about the same.

Feel free to comment with your own suggestions.

And while I'm at it...

Places to buy yummy gourmet stuff:

- Barkenhof, Saeffeln: This beautiful historic home is the residence of Olaf and Elke Barken, who live on the top floor and operate a shop on the main floor. Be prepared to drop some serious money, though. The cheeses, meats, wines, spices, coffees, teas, olive oils, vinegars, chutneys/dips/spreads, etc...are not cheap. But they are absolutely top-quality, and they are incredibly good. Olaf and Elke travel all over the world, personally selecting the products that they sell (to say that I am envious of their lifestyle is a gross understatement). Olaf will talk your ear off about all the products and he will let you taste them. My personal favorites: lemon-infused olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, chocolate covered espresso beans, French honey. They also sell bath products and furniture. Olaf has said that he wants to sell Barkenhof and move to Majorca to run a bed and breakfast. He could very well be serious about this. Get there while you can.

- Oil & Vinegar, Aachen & Heerlen: You can buy, of course, oils and vinegars. You can also buy spices, dip mixes, and crunchy things to dip in said mixes. You can also get cute serving dishes and bowls.

- Xenos, Aachen & Sittard: Here's a secret - go to Oil & Vinegar and taste the bruschetta dip mix and the fruschetta dip mix. Then go to Xenos and buy jars of the mix for a fraction of the price! They taste almost exactly the same, and they are MUCH cheaper. They have all kinds of other foodie things too...I buy pesto and grissini (tiny crunchy breadsticks) there a lot. Xenos sells tons of other things too...it's like one of those dollar stores, so I'm sure you'll find other ways to spend your money while you're there.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Tourism in the Buckeye State

Sometimes I wonder who in the world would ever actually go to Ohio on vacation. I lived there my entire life (until I moved to Germany, obviously), and while it's home, I can't really see the appeal to any foreign or out of state tourists (yet somehow, Fodor's saw fit to publish a guidebook about it). Let's see, I lived in: Findlay, Van Buren, Bowling Green, Columbus and Oxford. Of these, Columbus and Oxford are the only two places I would recommend to visitors, although Findlay certainly has its charming areas. Columbus doesn't really have anything different from any other major city...and Oxford is the typical quaint, small college town that just happens to boast one of the best restaurants in which I've ever had the pleasure of dining.

Now that I live in Germany, going to Ohio IS vacation. I had several opportunities to be a tourist in my own state while I was home. Some of them, unfortunately, fell through.

Picnic with the Pops in Columbus
This is an annual summer event that occurs every weekend for about 2 months. It's on the lawn of Chemical Abstracts (where I was gainfully employed for 2 years, and despite that, never managed to go to a Pops event). This year, I had tickets, and by God, I was going to go. It was the Patriotic Pops too, which they always do the weekend before Independence Day. John Philip Sousa marches and fireworks whilst you eat a picnic dinner in the grass. What could be better? Well, there is one thing...the final Pops concert of the summer - the Ohio State Marching Band (AKA "The Best Damn Band in the Land"). What scarlet and gray blooded fan wouldn't get fired up hearing TBDBITL playing "Hang on Sloopy"? Go Bucks!

Alas, it was not meant to be. My poor grandmother fell and fractured her ribs, and so we had to give up our plans for the Pops to go and be with her and help out around the house.

Maybe next year.

The Columbus Zoo
This is one of the best zoos I've ever been to, but perhaps I'm biased. It IS a world-class zoo, and Jack Hanna, the director emeritus, has fame that reaches far and wide (you may have seen his many appearances on Letterman), so the zoo is well-known. It's improved a lot in the past few years. The relatively new Australian section is pretty cool (I like the nocturnal animal exhibit and the Lorikeet Garden, especially) and Asia Quest is a nice and fairly recent addition. They also bought Wyandot Lake, the water park, which was right next door, so next year, that will be incorporated into the zoo and it will be more of a theme park.

Above all else, my favorite continues to be the manatees. I've been lucky, until this year, to always catch them during their feeding times. This year, they were napping. But then again, so were most of the other animals.

Actors Theatre at Schiller Park (German Village, Columbus)
Free Shakespeare in the park. Need I say more? And it's GOOD Shakespeare.

This one didn't pan out, sadly. I had every intention of seeing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged], which is a play I have been dying to see for ages. But the plans were cancelled. Back up to Grandma's house to see some relatives that dropped in from Illinois. You know how it goes.

While I'm at it, I should mention that German Village itself is a great tourist attraction. If you're in Columbus for some reason, go there. It's a lovely European-style community with great restaurants, boutiques, and the best book shop in the world ever (The Book Loft - a 32 room Victorian house that is stuffed from floor to ceiling with books). The community hosts the city's annual Oktoberfest, which is a good time, if you like to Polka, anyway.

Lake Erie
This is probably the biggest tourist draw to Ohio. There is Cedar Point amusement park, although I haven't been there since I was 19. (I no longer go to amusement parks after getting whiplash on a roller coaster and spending an entire summer in the chiropractor's office...this happened at King's Island down by Cincinnati, not at Cedar Point). There is Johnson's Island, which is a Civil War prison/cemetery (Confederate soldiers, obviously). There is Marblehead Lighthouse, camping, water recreation, etc. etc. Cheese Haven - a huge store devoted to cheese (didn't stop by there this time, although that was always a must-stop before when I was in the area). Close to that, there is a giant farmer's market, where we stopped to get fresh peaches and strawberries. It's the only one in the area, so you really can't miss it.

Our main reason for going - Kelleys Island and wine tastings. There are a few islands up there at Lake Erie that belong to Ohio (nearby Pelee Island is actually part of Canada). There is South Bass Island (AKA Put-in-Bay), which has enough bars to allow people to get wasted and screw around on golf carts all day. The thing to see there is Perry's Monument, which gives you a view of Canada on a clear day (well, the aforementioned Pelee Island, anyway). We opted for Kelleys Island, which has the world's largest glacial grooves, although I've seen them before and don't find them all that impressive. But it's an island filled with adorable cottages and huge, elegant bed and breakfasts, Kelleys Island Wine Company, restaurants, boutiques, the mandatory fudge and ice cream shops, mini golf, and the Butterfly Garden, which we also visited.

We had lunch almost as soon as we got off the ferry. We ate at a place called The Captain's Corner (it has a different name every time my parents go up there). While you would think that seafood would be the obvious thing to order, it's a bit of a risk, I think, considering how polluted the lake is (I do believe their fish is Lake Erie fish). I stuck to land animals, namely chicken...a chicken BLT wrap with homemade potato chips and coleslaw. It was okay. Seriously...just okay. I wouldn't enthusiastically recommend this place, but it had a fun atmosphere and the food was standard. They had an abnormal amount of Greek items on the menu, for a restaurant that wasn't specifically Greek (I highly suspect the owners are of Greek descent).

We went to two wineries: Kelleys Island Wine Company, which I already mentioned, and Firelands Winery, which is located on the mainland in Sandusky.

Of the two, Firelands Winery is by far the best. The lady who helped us with our tasting was super nice. When I told her that I live in Germany and was anxious to try their Riesling, she insisted that I sample the Gewurztraminer, even though it wasn't on the tasting menu. She wanted me to give her my honest opinion about how their German-style wines stacked up to the real thing.

Thumbs up, enthusiastically.

She also let me taste the Moscato d'Asti, again, not on the menu. I LOVE Moscato. This one was beautiful. My parents tried it too and looked at me like I was insane. It's a sweet, sparkling wine...more like sparkling grape juice than wine. But I love it. I can't help it.

If you're ever in the area, give those people some love. Their wines are amazing, and they have a fabulous gift shop. Tastings are only $1 (for the entire tasting, not just one sample).

There are other wineries in the area too, and it seems a new one is opening every year. We plan to go again sometime and try out some of these other places.

I really like the Lake Erie area. Parts of it are very cheesy (the Pre-Historic Forest and Mystery Hill, with the incredibly fake looking dinosaurs and mammoths, comes to mind) and some parts of it are rather run-down, but the islands are pretty, and some of the mainland areas are beautiful, especially around Sandusky, Marblehead and Port Clinton.

The drive from Columbus up to the lake was quite nice too. We went through a lot of charming, small rural towns. One thing I noticed was that the town could consist of five houses and a church, and there would still be a dairy bar. We stopped at the Daily Scoop in Bucyrus on the way home for some soft-serve cones.

Sometimes I have to take myself away from what is familiar and stay away from it for awhile in order to see it with fresh eyes. That was definitely how I saw this trip to Ohio. I suppose I could see the appeal, but I guess I just prefer places that are a bit more exotic.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Travel Books I'm Loving Now

I'm amazed that people have actually told me that they read books based on what I've been reading. They seem to trust my instincts, seeing as how I have a BA in Literature and pursued it at the graduate level for a couple of years. But I'm also a total geek. I have a "Reading is Sexy" t-shirt and I take pride in reading obscure stuff that nobody else reads. But I'm a book reviewer for Curled Up With a Good Book too, so I guess I can safely claim some authority on the subject (hey, I'm in it for the free books!).

Right now, my main passion is travel memoirs. I can't get enough of them. Some are painful to read (Rebecca West's 1200 page Black Lamb and Grey Falcon springs immediately to mind), but most fill me with sheer joy and inspire me to be a better travel writer and to get myself published in more prominent publications.

Among them:

- anything by Frances Mayes
First, I saw the movie - Under the Tuscan Sun. It is NOTHING like the book. Frances Mayes does not look like Diane Lane. She is also very happily married, not the divorcee that is portrayed in the movie. It is a good movie in its own right, but not a substitute for the book. Read the book. Seriously. It is AMAZING. I defy you to read it and not want to book the first thing smoking to Tuscany. Same with Bella Tuscany. And then there's her beautiful coffee table book, Bringing Tuscany Home, which is filled with gorgeous photos of her home in Cortona, Bramasole, as well as other delightful pictures and recipes of all the glorious food she makes and eats. Right now, I am within 100 pages from finishing A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller. It is vintage Mayes...she writes with the kind of passion that I only feel and can never adequately express. She doesn't just visit a place...it inhabits her soul. I love that she writes about places I've been (I'm drawn to books that are especially about places I've been). Her descriptions of Bath and Istanbul brought back such wonderful images of my own travels to those places.

- anything by Alice Steinbach
I love this woman just as much as I love Frances Mayes. Her writing is extremely evocative. Her two travel memoirs - Without Reservations: The Travels of an Indepedent Woman and Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman - fill me with awe. She is fearless, traveling alone all over the world the way that she does. I travel by myself often enough, but there are some places where I just wouldn't dare to attempt it.

Anyway, my aunt currently has custody of two of my Frances Mayes books and both of my Alice Steinbach books and she loves them and feels as inspired by them as I do.

I also love A Woman's Europe, which is a collection of travel essays by various authors (including Frances Mayes).

Notice that all these books are written by women?

Not to leave out the men...I love Peter Mayle's books about Provence. They're classics.

Another book that gave me a...bookgasm...(sorry, but I just had to use that word)...this proves how geeky I truly am:

A Reader's Guide to Writer's Britain

Yes, it combines 3 of my favorite things: literature, writers, and Britain. If you ever want to take a literary tour of the UK, this is the book to consult. My edition is slightly outdated, but it seems to cover nearly everything, from the most famous of British authors to the most obscure ones. It pains me that I only discovered this book after my last trip to England. I could plan whole vacations around this book. And I would. Unfortunately, we are running out of time, and England is not in the plans for the rest of our time here.

I had this brilliant idea for an article that was sadly already used by salon.com (curses!), but that I can still work with. It's basically a list of books that are about places, for those who love to read about a place while they're there. For example, Hemingway's A Moveable Feast was written mostly about Paris. Could you imagine anything better to bring along with you to read while you're in Paris? Well sure, other books about Paris. But you know what I mean. While in Bath, you have to read Jane Austen. You HAVE TO. She is from Bath and a few of her novels are set in Bath. It would be sacriligious not to. The Historian - well, that covers several locales: Istanbul, Amsterdam, Venice, Budapest, etc. etc. It is because of that book that I've been longing to go to Budapest for ages now, but I've already been to several other places mentioned in the book.