Sunday, April 30, 2006

from Buren, Germany: spargel and potatoes, with butter

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Why, of all places, Buren? Ed, my traveling companion, does business with a factory owner here. You know, Ed, the relaxed guy with the duffle bag? Who avoids meat and avoids fancy cars and living spaces (try: sheep shed just south of Madison)?

We speed by train to Koln, then to Dortmund, and there waits Oskar, ready to take care of us. Oskar, politely dressed in tweeds to meet Ed, dressed in an old t-shirt and jeans (don’t forget the duffle bag). Ed, his big time American buyer who routinely requests shipments of parts needed for vintage BMW motorcycles in the US. Oskar, who drives the most gadget filled car I have ever seen, opening the door for Ed, who proudly drives a 93 Geo (I think; I can’t really tell as the rust has eaten away any markings), with pink stripes, because it came that way; purchase price: $600.

If Ed is an original who-knows-what, the elderly Oskar is a quintessential German industrialist (you know, in my imagination, since in truth he is the only German industrialist I have ever met). He puts his car in the fast lane of the highway and stays there for the entire fifty mile trip home.

There are no speed limits on this highway? Ed asks this staring at the speedometer which is registering 180 km/hr ( approximately 105 miles) and still climbing, as sheets of rain drench the road, and wimpy cars jump out of the way, to make room for the big black bullet, driven by a man with very gray hair.

Oskar booked us a room at a lovely inn in the center of Buren. We had searched the Net and asked about a few simple choices on the outskirts. I think he must have thought we were Americans without an imagination. He ignored them all and placed us in a hotel fitting for one of his major clients.

He points now to a church across the street. Looks very old, very… Christian.
You want to go in tomorrow? To look, sure. A noble if ancient history, there.

[N.b.: Buren is known for the castle on the outskirts, where Himmler set up his experimental epicenter for the breeding of the superior race. We went there today. Wewelsburg – a beautiful castle turned ugly.]

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In the evening Oskar and his wife prove that what goes on in the German kitchen can be splendid. In the home kitchen that is. Buren is pork country and we have it wonderfully prepared with roasted veggies, on kebab sticks.

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But it’s the dessert that deserves loud clapping and hooting, if only Mr and Mrs Oskar did not seem so refined and proper. An appfel kuchen (forgive spelling, it’s not my language) with vanilla ice cream and a home made eggnog sauce.

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And the drinks! You’d think it would be all about beer, but no. A lovely aperitif of a local bubbly white poured over brandied apricots, followed by a German Riesling look-alike (actually two bottles of it, as we are all in the mood), followed by an herby digestive, lovingly called killepitsch. I received a present bottle to take back home. I’ll serve it with the story of why it has the word kill in the name, a story that seems to trace it back to the drinking habits of German soldiers during The War.

In the morning Ed and I sit down to a German breakfast. Bread, yes of course. And cheese and boiled eggs. And meats and salamis and all the rest of it, the part that was to be expected.

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After, as Ed and Oskar meet over machines, Mrs. Oskar and I walk through the town, out of town, around town. Best to keep moving. It’s 3 degrees C outside and the umbrella needs a raise every now and then.

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Shit weather. Those were Oskar’s first words to us at the train station. Agreed. But a golden day nonetheless sparked by the amazing generosity of our hosts. Down to the very last golden spear of pale asparagus that we eat for lunch, along with boiled potatoes and wine. Beer for the boys. Cakes at the café for all of us.

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Saturday, April 29, 2006

from Apremont, France: horses, horses, horses…(and lobsters).

For a little village (with no Internet), this place has a handful of nice surprises.

When gray stone houses have high stone fences and dense hedges, you get that itch to find an opening and look inside. Shocking color! Little gardens built into rocks and along paths, trees so full of blooms you have to wonder why they are this excited to let it all out.

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Ocean colors

It’s horse country here. Not because of the proximate Chantilly racetracks. They graze and raise their horses in Apremont for the sole purpose of playing polo. How do I know this? I walk past the fields and I see this:

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But the village itself is really small. From the point of view of commerce, there is one tabac and one country restaurant. That is it.

The chef has been cooking up local foods in the kitchen of this particular country auberge for some thirty years. Does food ever become predictable? No. And that's just excellent. You do not want to go out of your way to find food and realize that the place offers no surprises. Not a problem at the Auberge. The seasonal Brittany lobster is splendidly presented: boiled, broiled, baked, wrapped in aspic, creamed in a bisque. There are just a few locals in the dining room. They all choose the lobster run. Me and them, them and me. Community over lobster tails.

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pancake wrapped lobster in aspic, radish custard, chutney, parmesan cookie

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lobster bisque

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spiced tail, two types of a potato, one type of everything else.

God, what a way to start a trip. I justify the indulgence by pointing out that it is Ed’s only night in France and tomorrow we’ll be hosted by Germans and who knows what will appear on our plates. I imagine they have a different attitude about food, there, in the villages of Germany. When I was a teenager, I spent a month in Eastern Germany (because I am Polish and I guess one needs to show a sign of neighborliness even if I’m not altogether sure the feeling was historically reciprocated). Don’t much remember the food. Given me, that says a lot.

So indeed, the meal is splendid. Chef Jean Claude smiles endlessly. I want to hug and kiss him but realize that such a display of affection may be misinterpreted.

Nothing left then but for me to wake up the next day before dawn and venture forth for a morning walk, just to see those earliest beams assert themselves on the stone walls.

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Followed by a basket of croissant type pasteries and then a frantic effort to catch the proper and timely train into Germany. It becomes cold and drizzly in central Europe. Figures.

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layers of croissants

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to Germany, for now.

P.S.: No, no Internet access here in Buren, Germany either. Not even dial up at the hotel. I infiltrated the proprietor's private office to post this. Man, I am brazen. I post now to the audible belly-laughter from the floor below. Good thing they're all preoccupied with late night week-end indulgences or else I'd never have coaxed anyone to let me work here, behind the kitchen doors.

Friday, April 28, 2006

from Apremont, France: simple pleasures and no Internet

Where did I come up with this one – a village so close and yet so far?

It is the first stop – a day of rest. I chose Apremont because it is very very slow-paced and it has a country restaurant. With a few rooms at the side. The appealing qualities of Apremont.

But how to get there? It goes like this: from the airport, to a Paris train station, then, by train, onto the nearby Chantilly – a town of lace and racetracks and chateaux and nearby forests, then, well, then you’re stuck. I guess you could always walk to Apremont…

Nina, if you wheel your own suitcase and carry your own heavy pack while I just tag along with my little duffle bag, people will talk.
Well then, as a special favor, I'll let you pull it...

There have to be buses to Apremont, non?

Oh, but first thing’s first. You know that you are where you want to be when you look up (this is still in Chantilly) and see this:

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chestnuts in bloom

And when it takes no more than five minutes to locate a café that will serve you this:

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Chantilly: fresh and honest

People watching. You could say that it was the first thing I did (other than trying to get places) on this side of the ocean. Over a plate of cheeses and a salad, with slices of tomato and baguette. So simple, even a kid could do it. Or eat it:

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Chantilly: two girls and a flower

Back then to the problem of how to get from Chantilly to Apremont. We have established that there are no buses that run there. So taxi maybe? It’s only about six or seven kilometers. No taxis come to you in Chantilly. You have to do tricks and ask lots of people.

People get curious about us, with the yellow and blue backpack, the big suitcase and a small red duffle (the latter is Ed’s the rest – well, mine).

Where are you from? The question this time comes from a guy smoking his, let’s pretend, very French cigarette.
And where are you headed? Yes? Well you should leave Chantilly. I’am from here. I hate it. The people think they are rich.
Hmm. It could be that they are. Creamy white buildings, like the cream that made the name famous. Lovely. With flowers everywhere.

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After many such innocuous and quasi-helpful conversations, we are finally whisked off in a fancy cab.

In Apremont, we settle in to the Internet-not-available-not-even-dial-up “restaurant with four guest rooms,” La Grange aux Loupes.

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Apremont: no to Internet, but yes to a French poodle

Helpful types suggest I hike over to the fancy resort outside of town… Surely they’ll have the wiring. Oh yes, indeed.

Meantime, the sun is pulling at me. God, it’s gorgeous here. So why is it that tomorrow we leave? That is the nature of this trip: to move on even when you’re not particularly inclined to do so. I have an agenda!

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the houses of Apremont

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Good morning, it's five o'clock, this is your wake up call.
I did not order a wake up call! I hardly slept…

Well get going, you said you were stuck as to what to pack.

I am. I cannot decide. It’s cold and hot at once, I need different things for hiking, for working, for biking, for beaching, for riding the iron rooster. Late last night, I stared at my closet for one hour then, disgusted, fell asleep.

Me, I had no problem..
You’re only going for two weeks, I’m going for two months!
…I took out all the shirts that didn’t have holes, as you don’t like holes, and stuffed them along with clean underwear, into a duffle bag…

So starts my trip. The bus leaves in two hours and I am stuck on what to pack. Moreover, the post office and I are in dispute. They only hold mail for thirty days. What’s the matter with people, doesn’t anyone take off for two months anymore? I do not understand Americans.

In the meantime, Ed, my singularly original travel companion is calling again.
My asparagus is up!
Great. Jeans or chinos, jeans or chinos…
You have to try some before you leave.

It is 9 in the morning, the bus leaves in two hours and I am not asparagus inclined. But take a New York boy and place him on a (mini) farm and he gets, well, excited when things come up.

So if I miss the bus it is because I am steaming asparagus and steaming at the post office and wondering what to pack. God, what a sunny day.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

eve of

Not a time to get all sentimental, is it? I’m leaving tomorrow morning. My God, I am leaving tomorrow morning????

The last time I packed my bags and zipped off to Europe for several months was when I graduated from college. Holed up in the mountains of Italy in February and March, I soon became restless. I spent as much time away from my rented room as in it. Get me out of this beautiful Alpine valley!! I want people, streets, chaos!

That was then. Now I want to delight in tranquility and peace, so that the biggest dilemma becomes which olive oil to favor and which lemon tart to come back to in the afternoon.

Still, to be gone that long…

I ran between office and Library Mall and Bascom Mall and thankfully, no real mall. I packed up my one little plant and gave it away, I zipped and zapped through my big list and made it smaller.

It’s good that I am leaving at a time where the sun is so strong and spirit of this place is so palpable. It’ll make me eager to be back. In two months. Gulp.

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badger spirit

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badger spirit, cont'd

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badger spirit, cont'd

At the end of the day, with a friend:

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another red spirit

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

state colors

Hey, Wisconsin loyalists, we are in the middle of spirit week! Of course, if you’re visiting from elsewhere and you don’t know this, it may appear that we are batty. Tuesday is the designated red and white day. On Monday, Bucky was on the hill and a bagel ‘n juice breakfast was on the house.

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breakfast with bucky badger on bascom

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...because it's spring

I took a break this past evening to celebrate being frantically busy. This may not make sense to anyone else, but breaks come naturally to me. I have a plateful and yet I leave town for a different kind of plateful. The good people in Lake Mills who taught me ice sailing back in January were grilling and I was itching to have fantastically flavorful piece of meat and this:

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another shade of green

…overlooking the now very unfrozen this:

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ice free

My host volunteers with the Lake Mills Fire Department and so we took a hike to examine up close the guts of a fire station. Inside, all is spiffy and red and ready to go.

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To me, the job appears stressful to the max. But the wife of our host said that her fears were not that a fire ceiling will come crashing down on him, but that he’ll get run down while speeding to the fire station. Tough cloth protects you from heat. What do you have to protect you from crazy drivers?

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sizing things up

The hike back reminded me that at this time of the year it takes a while for the darkness to roll in. And when it does, it’s still kind of pretty and inviting.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

go to sleep you weary hobo

It’s a song. Switch a word (traveler for hobo) and you have a Madison eatery. Or a bar. Or something. You also have me, a person who is weary just from facing questions about how the months ahead will play out. I have great thoughts about it, but very little idea about how the contours and pieces will fit into place.

At the Weary Traveler last night, I ate my Andes sandwich and I drank a German beer and I thought that I need to get going. Tired of planning, of lists, of trying not to forget details. My weariness will leave. When I am finally on the road. In a couple of days.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

more april observations

more april observations

One reason why I had always thought that I was well suited for the “house in southern France” idea (or in Italy – take your pick) is because I think I’d do well in the area of hospitality. Not so much the kind where everyone is suddenly a close friend and writes you that they’re on the way for a lengthy visit (as recounted by the infamous Peter Mayle), but the kind where on a warm evening (and because it is the south, there would be many such warm evenings) friends and neighbors would be welcome to congregate around my table, conveniently positioned outdoors under maybe a grape trellis or by a pear orchard. Not unlike this orchard, with tall grasses and budding branches, only this one is just outside Madison:

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April orchard

In my dreamy images, I would not necessarily have to cook – people would bring stuff – but it would be at my table and I would freely pour wine and I would happlily dust off surfaces and light candles and wash linens. Indeed, I’d look forward to setting the table. Not unlike this one, only this one is at the loft, on a lovely April Saturday evening:

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April evening at the loft

When a bunch of bloggers and assorted others put together a birthday dinner for me at the loft last night, I must admit, heaven could not have invented a better set up. I cooked nothing and barely touched a dish cloth. They did it all. I’ll step back from text and let a few photos describe the night. I did fail to catch the Kodak moment when someone at the table said “oh, look, Tonya is on fire! Do something!” In the heat of the moment my hand left the camera. Tonya herself received nary a singe, though she did admit to having felt a touch warm when leaving the stove. I suppose we should all pay attention to what our bodies tell us.

One last comment. I had wanted to do the noble thing and tell people not to bring gifts, especially since they were already providing food and drinks. I apologize for my utter piggishness in not stating that. But when each and every gift then turns out to be a gem of thoughtfulness, this does not increase one’s motivation to do the gallant thing in the future.

I can only say thank you, here, on Ocean. Especially to the author of the Tonya Show, who spearheaded the entire evening and cooked up a storm for it. What a fantastic pack of friends these guys are! No, really, you have no idea.

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the work of others

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the labor of Columnist Manifesto's "B"

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start with Bozzo-Lee savory cheesecake and Tonya Show margaritas

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Tonya Show first course

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Tonya Show Moroccan chicken

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Althouse cake

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happy Ocean author

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"tiny thoughts" and soon-to-be tiny one, finger-licking good

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Althouse at dusk

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Marginal Utility and company

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The Tonya Show: mastermind behind the event

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Ocean author: the last puff. It's chocolate. Really.