Kaffee tawk

When we travel for extended trips like this with hubby, I like to seek out and make contact with expat/American communities wherever possible. Interacting with these groups makes the culture shock a little less, well, shocking for me. And the groups I’ve met in various cities are usually very kind about letting me attend their events and gatherings as a guest for the week or so while I’m in town.

Last year when we were in Germany, I did some research ahead of time and discovered an organization called the American Women’s Club of Cologne. Several women responded to my email requests for information and were lovely about forwarding their calendar of social events and encouraging me to attend. I was able to reconnect with a couple of the same gals prior to our return trip this year.

The AWCC is awesome and has a full schedule of activities, from weekly coffee meetings to book clubs, moms groups, dinners, recipe exchanges, girls’ nights out — you name it. I can see this would be a great resource and a lifeline for new relocatees. I ended up riding the tram over to a small moms’ group gathering yesterday afternoon. We’d originally planned to hook up at a playroom facility, but when I got there, it was dark and locked. Fortunately, I was able to find the friend I’d intended to meet in a nearby café. When I went in, I was delighted to see a children’s play area set up in the back with tons of age-appropriate toys to occupy my little guy. Obviously a popular stop, as there were a half dozen other moms sitting around enjoying lattes as their kiddos played away to their hearts’ content. I whiled away a happy and relaxed hour chatting with two moms from England and one from Seattle and left with my weary travel-worn spirit feeling renewed.

This morning, I marked my calendar for another kaffee klatsch, this one at a place called Bastian’s – a more upscale café around the corner from our hotel. (For my Indy readers, this place is like a bigger version of Taste but with more bakery options, to give you a frame of reference.) Not really a mom-friendly event, this, but I had to bring the toddler with me as hubby was busy at his trade show and I didn’t have a choice. There were four other women in attendance, one native German, two from Australia, and one in the process of relocating to Cologne from Chicago. No other kids in tow today and no such luck for a play area here, so I ended up catching bits and pieces of conversation and quick sips of milchkaffee between jumping up to chase the toddler all over the shop.

Bastian’s is a gorgeous bakery/café and I really would have liked to stay for lunch, or at the very least, a piece of the absolutely beautiful looking cakes and desserts in the display counter. Hmph. Better luck next time. We hightailed it out of there when the toddler started to squeal like a stuck pig in that high-pitched, scare-every-dog-in-the-neighborhood way that only toddlers can. I sensed the golden window closing and picked up a small salami sandwich from a stand stack for a quick lunch in the hotel room while the toddler inhaled peanut butter crackers and a banana.

Our dinner last night went a long way to restore my faith in dining out with kids in Germany. I’m of the mindset that when in Rome, you should eat as the Romans do. Therefore, wherever we are, I like to seek out the best quintessentially local cuisine we can find. The only catch is, in Germany, people don’t seem to bring their kids out to dinner very often. Or at all. So when we go to German restaurants, we usually get the stink eye from waitresses and often from fellow diners as well. Now, my son is a typical, curious, busy two-year-old, but he does ok for the most part. It’s not like he picks up plates and smashes them onto the floor or flings goblets of sparkling water at fellow diners, for Pete’s sake! Still, we get the cold shoulder.

I asked my expat friends about this situation, and they all agreed that it’s hard to find child-friendly dining-out options here, with one exception. Italian restaurants. The Italians don’t seem to mind a little noise and a little mess. To test this theory last night, we went for dinner at a place by our hotel called Ristorante Sansone. And what do you think happened? We had the most fabulous, relaxed dinner and the staff doted on our son like crazy. Two of the waiters joked with him throughout the entire meal, even going so far as to snatch him up and take him over for a close-up look at the residents of the lobster tank.

Michael meets a lobster

It was so refreshing, and the food was delicious, too. I loved my fresh ravioli pasta stuffed with a ricotta and pear filling, topped with spinach, nuts and gorgonzola sauce. Divine. Hubby’s pizza diavolo was good, but CRAZY spicy – the thick slices of meat were so hot, he had to pick them off. The residual heat still made him sweat.

ravioli

Back in the mood for German food once again, we went for a walk down by the Rhine riverfront this evening for a visit to one of hubby’s go-to Cologne stops — Der Lowenbrau. This is an old-school beer hall joint that looks like it’s been around for ages and ages. And, as we were there early and it wasn’t terribly crowded, they were fairly tolerant of the toddler’s explorations.

Der Lowenbrau

 

The menu’s full of German classics, thankfully with English translations. I went for kasseler rippchen, a delicious smoked boneless pork chop/ham deal with a mound each of sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. The plate was a little cold by the time it got to me, but everything tasted wonderful and I polished it off without further ado.

Kassler rippchen

To wash it all down? One of my favorite drinks in the world – gluhwein. Like gulasche, gluhwein is an ideal way to cure what ails you on a chilly night, and a seasonal Christmas market standard offering. Basically, it’s a big honking mug of red wine spiced with cinnamon, orange and vanilla. It’s served hot with a little sugar on the side, and in my case tonight, a few crispy tiny almond meringue cookies. Just as good as I remembered.

gluhwein

The Christmas decorations and lights are currently going up all around town, and the preparations for the annual Christkindl markets are well underway. These miniature villages are popping up in various sites, each looking like a magical fairyland with its sweet booths and twinkling lights. I can only imagine how fun it would be to while away an afternoon or evening strolling along, sipping gluhwein, nibbling roasted chestnuts and checking out all the wares. Think stuff like nutcrackers, replicas of half-timbered houses, toys, dolls, sweets and all manner of holiday gifts. I’m really sorry we’ll miss this experience, as the markets don’t officially open until the day after we leave. Maybe we can time our trip better next year…

Greetings from Germany

We’ve been in Deutschland for two days now and the differences between this country and the previous two we’ve visited on this trip are strikingly apparent.

For starters, Germans operate by the book. I’m not saying they’re, um, uptight, just very much more formal and reserved than the French or the Italians. Gone are the friendly smiles on the streets, the pats on the head and high-fives for the toddler, and the casual sense of ease. These people mean serious business, not monkey business. Not that there aren’t exceptions to every rule, of course. The young man at hotel reception who checked us in couldn’t have been more accommodating, and there have been a few random offers to help me carry the stroller up and down public stairs.

I must fess up and say that the language barrier is really wearing on me at this point in the trip. I know enough French to get by in basic interactions and social situations, but I’m totally at a loss when it comes to German. I can say hello, goodbye, please and thank you, another beer and where is fill-in-the-blank. That’s about it. If someone starts speaking to me in French, I can probably deduce enough to figure out the gist of what he or she is getting at. In German? Not a clue. In some cases, this is probably not such a bad thing.

For instance, the waitress at the restaurant last night blasted me for the collapsed baby stroller accidentally falling into the busy main service aisle for about two seconds before I could grab it out of the way. Or the dirty backpacker at the Dom who made some sort of lewd comments about me hefting the stroller and carrying it up a small flight of stairs (without offering to help). It sounded like the German equivalent of “oh yeah, baby.” Whatever it was, he was NOT on the up and up. I contemplated telling him to F off, but he probably wouldn’t have understood anyway.

Our hotel room here is tiny compared to our previous accommodations – three single beds crammed into a room with a cramped bathroom, slow wifi connection and no fridge (fortunately, it’s cold enough outside that we can keep milk, yogurt and beer on the window ledge). The hotel does offer a pretty impressive breakfast buffet that includes stuffed crepes, scrambled eggs, a mélange of fried meats, fresh fruit, nuts, cheese/cold cut platters, and something that looks suspiciously like sushi. It’s a buzzkill that the food doesn’t taste as good as it looks, and the coffee sucks.

Even hubby prefers to get his morning fix at the Starbucks around the corner, and you know he wouldn’t set foot in that place unless he was really desperate. The toddler and I actually ducked in there ourselves yesterday – they offer some interestingly flavored seasonal lattes, and I’m intent on trying all of them. The lebkuchen version was yummy with a hint of honey and spice, and the toffee nut I enjoyed today was equally good. Hubby brought back a cup of steamed milk for the toddler; he wasn’t interested at first, but got pretty excited once we started calling it “Michael’s coffee.”

I guess I’m making Germany out to sound pretty bad, which is unfair. Really, Cologne is a lovely city. Very picturesque with the gigantic Dom cathedral as the centerpiece of the city, hyper clean, lots of charming pedestrian shopping streets, and an entirely different kind of good food than France or Italy.

Cologne Dom

For our first dinner in town, we revisited a place we found and liked during our trip last year. Bier Esel is an old-style traditional German brauhaus not far from where we’re staying. I had my heart set on schnitzel, and that’s what I got. The place was packed, though, and service was slow as a wet week in Wales (another classic hubby-ism). It felt like we had to wait forever for our food and drinks, not a pretty picture when you’re exhausted from a daylong train journey and trying to wrangle a cranky, overtired, hungry toddler. At last, our dinners arrived. If you enjoy Hoosier-style pork tenderloin, trust me, you’d like schnitzel. My pounded, breaded pork cutlet was absolutely enormous, served Jager-style with a creamy mushroom sauce and a mountain of fries. I chewed my way through half of it and cried uncle.

What I really love about German cuisine are the snack stands and backereis (bakeries) on every corner. German baked goods are every bit as good as those you find in France, but in a completely different way. The breads are heartier — hefty pretzel rolls and chewy buns, but there are also fabulous butter cookies, strudels, cakes, huge doughy gingerbread-like men, and donut-ish Berliners. It’s all good. My usual lunch here is a tomato mozzarella sandwich on a crusty hard roll, perhaps with a smear of butter or basil oil and a slice of salami. Yum, yum, yum.

a typical backerei window

One of the first things I ate during my first trip to German six years ago was a bowl of warming, delicious gulaschesuppe, and it’s still something I seek out when we’re here. You can also find a thicker gulasche on its own served over noodles, and that’s what I ate last night. In its basic form, gulasche is a beef stew made with peppers and onions in a spicy tomato sauce. The suppe is the same thing in more watery soup form. Either way, it’s the perfect thing to warm your bones and your tummy on a cold night, and the version I had last night during our return trip to Bier Esel was fantastic. So good that hubby ended up eating half of it, despite the fact that he’d already had gulasche earlier in the day somewhere else.

On the Cologne agenda this week – a couple of coffees with the American Women’s Club and a trip to the local Chocolate Museum. Stay tuned for a full report.

Final thoughts on France

As our train slowly sways its way out of Gare du Nord before picking up speed bound for Cologne, I can’t help but reflect on the past 10 days we’ve spent in France. Several impressions stand out in recent memory:

For me, the food is the best thing about France, bar none. Ah, the food. I’ve already covered my love for the street markets in a prior entry, but this affection also extends to so many other items as well. I think I could eat croissants for breakfast every morning for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy about it. Perhaps a pain au chocolat thrown in here and there for a little variety. And crepes…

I almost enjoy watching crepes being made more than I do eating them. Well, almost. The way these vendors know how to pour the perfect amount of batter onto the steaming greased griddle and use their little sandbox toy-contraption to spread it out, then wiggle a long flat spatula under the whole thing, fold it and flip it to the other side without tearing the delicate golden brown crepe… it’s half master skill, half art form. My go-to crepe is one spread with a layer of melting drippy Nutella, but I also had a delicious savory version that was stuffed with ham, cheese, olives and mushrooms. The crepe master managed to position the cheese so that as it melted, it oozed out the sides, turning all crunchy and brown on the grill. He then folded the whole thing a couple times like origami, and handed it over. I was in raptures nibbling the crusty cheese away to get to the actual crepe-wrapped goodness inside.

A short list of the best things I’ve had to eat while in France would have to include the salads I made with my street market produce purchases; the breads, pastries and preserves at a place called Le Pain Quotient during our first Paris breakfast with hubby’s mom, thyme-scented rotisserie chicken from a Parisian butcher shop, a chocolate macaron with ganache filling, Brie-smeared baguettes, and the steak dinner I prepared in our Aix hotel room kitchenette.

Second thing worth mentioning: I do a hell of a lot of walking here, without even thinking about it. Contrary to popular belief, some French women DO get fat, but they’re few and far between. With the amount of passive exercise they get, it’s not difficult to see why this is so.

Since neither hubby nor I like being cooped up in a cramped hotel room, we make a big effort to get out and about on foot as much as possible. I always come home from our European adventures with looser-fitting pants and, in the words of my dear hubby, feeling fit as a racing snake. I’m blessed to have good genes that keep me fairly thin to begin with, but I walk my ass off when we’re abroad. Literally. I keep intending to bring a pedometer with me on these trips to see just how much ground I’m covering, but never manage to remember to buy one beforehand. No joke, we walk for MILES, and that doesn’t even include stairclimbing. Take it from someone who struggles with a perpetually flat-as-a-pancake booty — my butt has never looked better than it does right now. I may just have hubby take a photo of it for me to post, I’m so proud.

Not to mention, my European travel diet consists of often spotty meal planning. For example, we might arrive at a hotel late and not get to eat a decent dinner. Or, say, we sleep in and miss breakfast. Whatever the case, I rarely eat three full meals a day here. I know I’m definitely burning off way more calories than I’m taking in, so I don’t feel bad about allowing myself an extra croissant, real cream in my coffee, or a big honking chunk of bleu cheese. Which is cool, because the French don’t do low-fat. Why would they when food tastes this good? The closest I’ve seen to diet anything is Coca Light (Diet Coke), but no one seems to order it.

On the far end of the continuum, many of the pale waifish teenagers and early twenty-somethings in France are impossibly skinny, seeming to exist solely on cigarettes and espresso. They look nearly vampirish. It’s unnatural. I want to rip the smokes out of their mouths, hold them down in the bright sunlight and forcefeed them creme fraiche.

Which brings me to my next point: smoking. Still compulsory in these parts. It’s a minor victory that smoking has been banned inside restaurants and cafes, but anywhere al fresco, it’s still fair game. Bummer, because the best part of the whole café experience is sitting at one of the outdoor tables, sipping your coffee and simply watching the world go by. A little hard to do when you’re worrying about your toddler inhaling loads of second-hand smoke from the oblivious mademoiselle sitting two feet away. And the second you step off a train or out of a hotel lobby, you’re walking straight into the heart of darkness that is the unofficial smoking section. I grew irritated with seeing young women galore pushing baby strollers around, butts aglow and hanging out of the corners of their mouths. Alas… let’s move on.

I wholeheartedly admit, fashion is not my forte. Just ask the two gal-pals who came to my home and staged a wardrobe intervention earlier this year, dismissing nearly half the items in my closet as “Spongebob Squareshirts” and “grannywear.” It’s no surprise that I feel like a fish out of water in France. Paris, especially. The younger French women wear some crazy-ass stuff that I wouldn’t even attempt to get away with (or want to) back home – think bubble skirts and leggings, or jean shorts with black tights and knee boots in the dead of winter. I saw one guy wearing a pair of pants that were slung so low in the middle, even M.C. Hammer would have passed on them. Honestly. It looked like he took a dump in them and forgot to change.

However, with age comes wisdom. Many of the more mature women dress impeccably. I can’t even recall any actual outfits, but they all just seem put together in a way that appears simultaneously effortless and tres chic at the same time. A jaunty scarf (I’m telling you, these women know more creative knots than a sailor), fabulous footwear, a classic bob haircut, a swipe of red lipstick… they know how to pull it all off.

Fashion isn’t restricted to humans here, either. I’ve seen some seriously pampered pooches out and about, dressed in sweaters, raincoats and hats that probably cost more than I spend on my own clothes. The French LOVE their dogs. I just wish they would do a better job of cleaning up after them. Everywhere you look — poop. You really have to watch your step closely, lest you wind up with a soleful. To make matters worse, the piles are all but camouflaged this time of year by the brown leaves on the ground. Taking a stroll down the street is like walking through a minefield.

I somehow managed to tread in a big smear and didn’t even know it until I got back to the hotel room and started wondering where that awful shit smell was coming from. After deducing that the toddler’s diaper wasn’t to blame, I realized the bottom of my boot was caked. Even trouncing through puddles and shuffling through the grass didn’t get rid of it. I ultimately managed to scrape the merde out of all the tiny grooves with a twig. Ugh. The very next day, the toddler and I were playing in the expanse of grass across from our hotel when some woman’s yappy furry friend came bounding over to us. As he/she/it enthusiastically jumped all over me, I saw that this dog had apparently stepped in its own mess and with each bounce, was now transferring it onto the tops of my only remaining pair of clean shoes.

I certainly can’t wrap up my summation of one of the most beautiful and vibrant countries in the world talking about crap, so I’ll change the subject to a happier theme. I have this theory that cities are like people, and you can have relationships with them just like you would other human beings. To that end, I’ll attempt a little word association game to describe my impressions of the places we’ve been and seen:

Paris = Majestic. Magical. Cultural. Stylish. Feast of the senses. Out of my league.

Aix en Provence = Graceful. Friendly. Fashionable. Laid-back. Intelligent.

Marseille = Scrappy. Persevering. History. Tough talking, but with a soft side. Surprising.

And with that, I bid France adieu and au revoir, looking forward the rest of the week in Germany.

Aix marks the spot

Our week here in Provence is flying by. It’s time to start thinking about packing for our departure to Germany on Monday — on the move once again!

I think if pressed, I’d have to say my favorite thing about Aix, and about Paris and the whole of France in general, would have to be the street markets. For starters, the food products are the most beautiful versions I’ve ever seen anywhere, and they taste absolutely as good as they look.

Aix street market produce stand

 

The best meals I’ve had all week have been composed of stuff I’ve bought at the markets. Salads made with picture-perfect produce so fresh, it snaps with every bite. Farm-fresh eggs with creamy bright yellow yolks scrambled with a little cheese and served alongside steaming coffee and a croissant. Yum, yum, yum. Food just doesn’t get simpler or more flavorful than this.

the most stunning salad ever

The street markets happen nearly every day in one spot or another around town, and each I walked through was better than the last. Not that the first was any slouch, but the second and third I saw put it to shame. Some markets seem to focus on one specific theme, i.e. flowers, clothing, antiques, food and the like. You might also find booths tucked in here and there selling odd stuff like cosmetics, toiletries, purses, kitchen utensils, those weird little head-scratcher devices, and more.

Obviously, the food markets are the ones I’ve been most taken with. Just imagine gorgeous row after row of the cutest sweet-as-candy tiny strawberries, vats of olives large enough to swim in, all manner of charcuterie, mouthwatering fresh baked Madeline cookies, and fragrant roasting chickens. The most intriguing booth I saw held a huge array of every kind of spice imaginable, all beautifully displayed in little square bowls, plus huge bowls of colorful peppercorns and salts. The vendor scooped out small portions of whatever you wanted, weighing each before packaging in a little plastic sack or little glass jar like some sort of mad scientist amid a chemistry experiment. I could have stood there for an hour just reading the labels on each spice and smelling its wonderful aroma. For foodies like me, it was the best perfume counter in the world.

spice vendor at Aix street market

The food at the local supermarkets isn’t nearly as nice as what you get at the street markets, in my humble opinion, although there is a pretty decent gigantic superstore a ten-minute bus ride away from our hotel (not nearly as nice as the Iper store in Milan). When we originally asked the concierge about where to find a grocery store, she tried to direct us in not-so-comprehensive English and kept mentioning a casino. Naturally, hubby and I assumed she meant the store was located near a casino. It was only after a small level of frustration we realized that the name of the grocery store chain is actually “Casino.” To make matters even more confusing, there IS an authentic casino as well on the bus line downtown. Eventually, we got it all sorted out.

I attempted to attend three ex-pat coffee meetings this week. I actually made it to one. Couldn’t find the café for the first one for the life of me, even with spotty consultation from hubby’s iPhone GPS app. The toddler and I did make it to the second, mostly thanks to having prescouted the location earlier in the week – the adorable restaurant called Croquemitoufle. The crowd hovered around 15, I’d say, and two women there had Indiana connections — one hailed from Elkhart and another was born near Ft. Wayne. It was interesting to chat with some fellow Americans, but we didn’t really have enough time to get into much in-depth discussion. Mainly because I’d forgotten the buses were running on a holiday schedule that day and by the time I actually caught one to go downtown, we’d already missed half the event. Anyway, the women I met were lovely, although the two I really had the most opportunity to chat with both sound like they will be heading back to the states sometime next year. Boo!

The third coffee was this morning, but we missed it because we decided to take a daytrip instead. Hubby, the toddler and I caught the bus to Marseille to take a walk around the Vieux Port (Old Port) and have some lunch. And what do you think we found? More markets! Fish and flowers, to be precise. We arrived late morning and I have a feeling we missed the majority of the action, but there were still plenty of fishermen and women lined up selling their catches, many still wriggling in their water tables. The fish, not the men and women… The fish stands lined one side of the port; another side was full of exquisite (and cheap!) fresh flowers of all shapes, sizes and shades.

Marseilles market tulips

Marseille is the oldest city in France, and it shows its age. It’s scrappy in much the same way as outer Milan is scrappy; the buildings are old and many are graffiti-laden and in need of some serious repair. The port itself is pretty and there’s a breathtaking big castle up on the hill overlooking the city, but off the beaten path, things are pretty dirty and dilapidated. The sight of laundry hanging off the balconies galore lent a touch of charm and color.

sunny Marseilles

I had intended to seek out a bowl of the signature Marseillaise dish, bouillabaisse, but we really didn’t come across any cafes or bistros serving the garlicky, brothy fish stew that looked appealing during our very abbreviated visit. I settled for an unsatisfying open-faced bruschetta that was really nothing more than a saucer-sized piece of bread topped with sliced tomatoes and a mountain of cheese, then run under the broiler until not quite toasty. Hubby thinks I’m complaining all the time, but this really was mediocre for seven euros.

We scored much better with this evening’s meal. After a bus ride back to Aix and a long walk through the oldest section of town, we worked up an appetite to shop for some hearty meat and potatoes. Hitting up the specialty stores along Rue D’Italie, we came away with two ruby-red slabs of faux filet (American equivalent = New York strip), potatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, a baguette and wine. Cooking on our miniature two-burner electric stove using one pot and one pan, I somehow managed to transform these items into a Provencal-ish meal that I daresay was as good as you’d find in some of the local bistros. Seared steaks with garlic butter and blue cheese crumbles, mashed potatoes with crème fraiche, steamed broccoli and mushrooms topped with a sprinkling of cheese, slices of fresh crusty baguette — is there anything more fulfilling than eating something that turns out to be EXACTLY what you wanted, and having it be every bit as good as you were hoping it would be? That was tonight’s meal for me.

And on that note, I bid everyone a fond bon soir.

Pardon my French

I got chewed out by a bus driver yesterday. For what, I couldn’t tell you, but I think I’ve got a pretty good idea. First, I had to use a 10-euro bill to buy my 1-euro ticket and she clearly didn’t want to have to go to the trouble to make change. I gestured that the bill was all I had, she “hmphed” and counted out my coins. Not a good start.

Although we’re technically supposed to collapse the baby stroller anytime we board a bus, we never have yet and it’s not been a problem. In fact, I’ve seen quite a few other women push strollers on and off the buses without a second glance. At the time, I was by myself with the toddler and was not about to try to wrestle him and the stroller at the same time.

The bus was crowded, but the driver seemed to want me to move to the back, which was impossible. Again, another hmph and a roll of the eyes as I tried to position the stroller along the side as inconspicuously as I could. There was still plenty of room for people to get by us, mind you.

We only had a short distance to ride, thankfully. When it came time to make our exit, I started backing the stroller up to lower it off the same front entrance where we’d boarded. This, apparently, was another no-no. I was supposed to somehow muscle the stroller through the crowd of passengers all the way to the back exit to disembark there instead of getting off through the front entrance, a mere 10 feet or so from where we were standing. The driver finally just shook her head and shooed us out, mumbling God knows what kind of insults not quite under her breath. Well, excusez the hell out of moi!

I hate looking like a stereotypical stupid American tourist. I attempt to speak the language wherever we travel, I don’t expect special treatment, and I try to be as respectful of foreign cultures as possible. The bus ride wasn’t a big deal in the big picture, I suppose, but the interaction with the driver bothered me for the rest of the day.

The more time I spend in France, the easier the language gets to navigate. They say immersion is the best way of learning, and it’s true. I can sometimes sense a difference in my comprehension level literally from day to day. This does NOT mean I’ve broken the language barrier with leaps and bounds. Far from.

I find I’m able to understand more French than I’m able to actually speak. This is frustrating. Someone might make a comment to me in a store or on the street and I’ll know what they’re saying, but the correct words don’t occur to me quickly enough to respond. Or I stammer out a response, only to realize I’ve used the wrong word the second it comes flying out of my mouth. Then I feel like a doofus. OR, I end up responding with something in Italian or German instead of French (a distinct possibility when we find ourselves visiting all three countries in the same number of weeks and the phrases for “please,” “thank you,” and “where’s the toilet?” all run together in my head).

I studied French in high school for three years, but my language skills and vocabulary have obviously become rusty with more than 20 years of non-use. It’s funny the words and phrases that do come back to me at the weirdest moments, though. The sun comes out and suddenly “soleil” pops into my head unbidden. I guess it’s all still buried in there somewhere waiting to be unearthed at the right moment.

The rare occasions when I’m able to carry off a short conversation flawlessly are thrilling, I must admit, but they’re definitely the exception and not the rule. Say, I’ll check out at the grocery store without a hiccup, or actually reply to someone’s question appropriately and without a lapse. Those moments are fantastic, but then again, it’s only small talk. It will be a long, long time before I’m able to carry on an in-depth French exchange with any sort of spontaneity. Still, it’s a start.

Yesterday, the toddler and I were wandering our way through one of the ubiquitous French street markets when I stopped to trail my finger along a beautiful knit scarf. The young guy behind the table came around to coo at the toddler and noticed his differently colored eyes (one brown, one blue. I know, it’s pretty cool.). Amazed, the guy gestured to his buddy to come over and have a look. I managed to contribute some sort of stammering comment, then explained we were American. The two of them chattered back and forth excitedly before turning to me, one obviously struggling to say something and trying to find the right words. Boy, do I know that feeling. I waited patiently to hear what would come out of his mouth, and finally he said “Like David Bowie?”

I laughed, and without a second thought, replied “Oui! Comme ça!”

Which, as it turned out, was the perfect thing to say.

Aix-rated

Day one in Provence and so far, so good! Much of yesterday was spent just getting here. We took a taxi to Charles de Gaulle to bid my mother-in-law a fond farewell before she caught a flight back to Ireland, then cabbed back into town to Gare du Lyon train station to await our carriage south. The weather, still rainy, took a turn for the colder and we had to really bundle up to ward off the chill.

Boarded our train due south and settled into our luxuriously large first-class seats (thanks, honey! I hereby defer all responsibility of booking train tickets to you from now on.) Soon, we were underway, looking forward to an uneventful three-hour express ride straight into Aix-en-Provence. Halfway there, the train came to a screeching halt and I feared our travel plans were going off the rails yet again. Turns out there was a problem with one of the exterior doors coming open, which required the attention of a mechanic before we could continue. Being stopped in the middle of nowhere meant the best solution was to travel backward to the closest train station. With our being on a busy track such as this, we had to just sit there and wait for the traffic to clear enough for us to make the return. So wait we did.

An older woman sitting in the seat across the aisle spent the entire trip wheezing and struggling for breath, making me question whether she really should have been traveling at all. I couldn’t determine whether the constant grunting, gasping and throat clearing was really a serious medical condition or just a nervous tic. This woman sounded like she REALLY needed some oxygen; I nearly leaned over and offered her the toddler’s inhaler at one point, the poor gal.

Finally, we backtracked, the problem was fixed and we went on our way. We arrived in Aix about an hour and a half later than anticipated, well after dark and starving. The next hiccup to be addressed — taxi after taxi refused to pick us up, the drivers taking one look at our collection of bags, stroller and baby and pleading not enough room in their cars. It was no problem for the cabbies in Paris, but here, our accoutrement was providing a problem. A kind soul eventually agreed to give us a lift to our hotel.

We’re staying in the Citadines, a hotel/apartment-type setup with locations throughout Europe. Our digs are basically a glorified dorm room – lino floor, a tiny kitchenette and a fold-out sofa. It’s not as bad as it sounds, though, we have a balcony overlooking some lovely mountainous scenery and the location is far enough outside the main drag to be fairly quiet, but only a 10-minute bus ride away from the center of town. There’s actually a full swimming pool under our balcony, but I can’t imagine anyone having the balls enough to face that chilly water this time of year.

By the time we got checked in, it was getting on to 8 p.m. and we hadn’t eaten since a lunchtime snack at the airport. Our rations for the little guy were running dangerously low and there aren’t any restaurants within quick walking distance, so hubby set off to find something to tide us over until morning as I stayed behind and unpacked. The toddler was NOT happy after falling asleep in the cab and then being unceremoniously woken up to unload. About 45 minutes later, hubby reappeared with pizzas and wine and we relaxed with slices of cheesy pepperoni, olive and mushroom pie and some delicious local red. After waging yet another nerve-jangling bedtime battle with the toddler, we all finally drifted off to sleep around 11:30 p.m.

This morning dawned bright and sunny, at long last! Whereas Milan made a scrappy first impression on me, I must say, Aix-en-Provence is proving impressive from the get-go. For starters, the climate here is fantastic. Hubby has spent a little time here before and described the area to me as vaguely northern California-ish. And he’s right – the mountainous scenery sort of calls to mind the California wine country region where we used to live. Of course, this is also a wine-producing area with the same kinds of indigenous vegetation. The sight of wild-growing rosemary and lavender brings a smile to my face.

Having no food in the room apart from the tuna-and-olive-topped pizza we didn’t touch cooling on the balcony, we hurried through our morning preparations and headed into town on foot as soon as we could after getting up. The section where we are staying is filled with nice-looking, well-kept apartment buildings sporting balconies filled with lovely plants, miniature bushes and trees.

After a short while, we came into the center of town. The city seems to radiate out from Le Rotunde, a roundabout distinguished with an impressive large fountain. Aix is known as the “City of Fountains;” to be fair, there are a lot of water features, but many are not all that. A trickle of water squirting up through a large bush does not a fountain make, but whatever.

Le Rotunde

The main thoroughfare is called Cours Mirabeau and shoots off directly from the rotunde — a large, mainly pedestrian street full of shops, banks and quaint restaurants. The whole joint is beautiful really, very clean and well maintained. The crowds aren’t too bad; then again, we are here during low season. The city population hovers around 125,000 normally, and it’s a university town. I can’t imagine how crazy busy it must be during the summer. Paris is hectic and churning all the time; in Provence, the pace of life seems a little slower and more forgiving. People actually stop their cars here to let us cross the street. In Paris, you have to hold onto your ass and run like hell.

We settled on a café right on the rotunde for breakfast/lunch — Nutella crepes, coffees and fruit salad. Slightly overpriced, but delicious. The gooey chocolately crepes were a huge hit with the toddler, as evidenced by the little brown fingerprints he left all over my cream-colored turtleneck. After fortifying ourselves, we took a stroll down the Cours Mirabeau checking things out. I’ve made contact with an English-speaking ex-pat group and found out they have a weekly coffee chat on Thursday mornings, so we sorted out the location — a beautiful tiny restaurant/café on a side street off the Cours Mirabeau. Also nearby, an English bookstore with a great vibe and hearty selection of tomes in my native tongue. Score!

Cours Mirabeau

The rest of the afternoon was spent stocking groceries for the room, first at Aldi and later at the charming market shops downtown. Trying to save a little money, we’ve decided to eat in the room when we can this week and I needed to prepare. For dinner tonight, I was in the mood for pasta and therefore, bought macaroni noodles and ingredients for a pseudo-ratatouille with salad and baguette. Unfortunately, the cooking equipment in the room leaves something to be desired… I tried to view the whole experience as a Top-Chef challenge, and after hubby finally figured out how to get the two-burner electric cooktop going, we were off and running. The finished product? Not one of my best efforts, but it was nice to dine Chez Nous as opposed to taking turns simultaneously subduing the toddler and trying to wolf down our dinners as we’ve been doing in restaurants for the past week.

Hubby is flying off to Wales tomorrow for a few days of professional networking at Rally Britain, so the toddler and I will be making our appearance at the first of two ex-pat coffee klatches tomorrow morning and hopefully gain some ideas for fun things to keep ourselves occupied. I’d love to get down to take a look at Marseilles while we’re here, maybe check out some of the countryside and taste some local wine, olive oil, what have you. A bientot!

Random Paris food observations

A few thoughts on items I’ve eaten in the last few days. In no particular order:

The food here hasn’t been quite as good as I seem to remember in some respects, particularly for dinners. Maybe we just haven’t chosen the right bistros.

For instance, on our last visit, I remembered having a stellar roast chicken and wanted to return to the particular restaurant that served it to me. So we did. However, when I ordered it this time, the portion was smaller, and it came with a cup of pomme frites. The fries were ok, nothing tremendous. I dove into the chicken (a quarter, leg and thigh). Not bad. Not fantastic. The savory jus under the chicken was the best part of the plate.

I was a few bites in when I realized the meat was pretty pink. Not bloody pink, but pink enough to make the hypochondriac in me kick into overdrive. Hubby had ordered the exact same thing, and said his seemed overcooked and slightly dry. I can’t imagine how two pieces of chicken that look exactly the same and are cooked in the exact same way could turn out so differently. Hubby intervened for me and had the chicken sent back to the kitchen for a little further cooking. This, after we’d already sent back my mother-in-law’s steak when it came out a little too pink for her taste. That waitress must have hated us.

The remains of my chicken came back steaming hot and I finished it, trying not to worry myself into a frenzy about food poisoning. As it turned out, I was fine, thank goodness.

We fared much better with a rotisserie bird from a local butcher. You occasionally see a rotisserie stand outside butcheries and at the street markets, spinning their delectable poultry like a ferris wheel, the delicious juices dripping down to flavor sliced potatoes roasting in the bottom of the machine. YUM. At 10 – 15 euros a pop, these chickens don’t come cheap, but they are worth every penny.

 

Needing a break from expensive café fare, hubby and I ventured out last night in the rain to purchase one such chicken last night, along with a fresh-baked baguette from the boulangerie and cheeses from the grocery store. Some cherry tomatoes, grapes and chocolate cookies rounded out the meal. We spread everything out on the table in the rental apartment, cracked open a 4-euro bottle of Cotes du Rhone and dug in. It was a fabulous rainy-day indoor picnic.

We also decided to save a few euros on breakfast this morning by eating in as well – having picked up some fresh fruit from the produce stand and huge buttery croissants from the same bakery where I got the baguette. Along with hot tea, yogurt and milk, it was a breakfast of champions.

My spirits have been a little low today because of all the rain, so I went out for a long solo walk and some unsuccessful souvenir shopping. Needing to warm up, I had my heart set on a café crème and a slice of tarte tatin (apple tart). Snagging a seat at a bustling place called Les Philosophes, I ordered and waited for hubby to come join me. The coffee did the trick to take off the chill, and the cake was ok, but not as good as the one I had last time around.

I want to try to recreate this recipe at home – doesn’t look too terribly hard. Sliced apples layered in a baking dish, drizzled with a caramel sauce and topped a layer of puff pastry. The whole thing is then baked until brown and bubbly and turned out onto a serving plate, sort of an apple version of pineapple upside-down cake. If you’re lucky, you can find it served with a little side dish of crème fraiche, a tangy cross between cream cheese and sour cream, and a pleasant alternative to whipped cream.

While I’m on the subject of sweet treats, I’ve got one word for you. Macarons. Oh. My. Goodness. You see these little gem-like confections in pastry shops everywhere you look, and oh man, are they delicious. Like the chickens, you pay dearly for these little mouthfuls at a euro each or more. But, if you’re looking for a splurge, they are a great way to go. Around the size of a 50-cent piece, the little feather-light meringues give way at the slightest bite to reveal rich fillings like chocolate ganache, fruit or cream. Swoon. We purchased half a dozen to share from a bakery around the corner in a rainbow of flavors —lemon, vanilla, chocolate, blueberry, almond, pistachio. Delectable.

This is our last night in the City of Lights before leaving on the train tomorrow afternoon for Provence. (Hubby insisted on making the ticket arrangements this time around. Can’t imagine why…) The weather has really prevented us from taking full advantage of all the gloriousness this lovely town has to offer, but I imagine we’ll be back again at some point. I’m already planning my next itinerary.

Murder on the Italian Express

Busy few days!

For our last day in Milan, hubby went back to the trade show and the toddler and I headed back downtown on the tram. Through one of the tourist magazines I found in our hotel room, I discovered it’s possible to take an elevator up to the roof of the Duomo for some interesting bird’s-eye views of the city.

Il Duomo

 

The tickets to go up cost a very reasonable 8 euros, and the experience was pretty awesome. You take the elevator up to the back corner of the roof and wind your way among the spires and gargoyles, up and down stairs around to the front. Eventually, you emerge into a flat space in front of the very tallest spire where you can simply breathe and take it all in. I can’t even describe how magnificent it is to commune with all that gorgeous architecture up close and personal. Just put it on your agenda if you’re ever in Milan.

on top of the Duomo!

The last supper in Milan Tuesday night was our farewell visit to Il Pavone. My meal was a delightfully light and pillowy gnocchi with a rich gorgonzola cream sauce and a few toasted walnuts scattered around the plate for good measure.

Il Pavone gnocchi con gorgonzola

I think hubby had a pizza diavolo, but I was too focused on my own food to care much. The three of us split what seemed to be the Italian equivalent of a crème brulee for dessert and bid the beautiful Maria a fond arrividerci.

the lovely Maria

Because I hate to fly so much, we had determined to take an overnight sleeper train to Paris Bercy, departing Milan around 11:30 p.m. Packed up and ready to go, we grabbed a taxi to Milano Centrale train station and waited for our ride. I thought it might actually be, dare I say it, a fun adventure. Silly, silly me.

I had a sinking feeling when I bought the tickets the day before that this trip may not go quite as planned. I couldn’t get my point across to the guy behind the counter, but he gave me reservations for beds for two adults, so I knew we’d have some sort of place to rest our weary heads at the very least. Or so I thought…

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but having taken very nicely appointed trains elsewhere around Europe, I figured this journey would be fairly similar. Ho ho ho.

The train pulled in and we waited to embark among a large, milling crowd. It looked old and rather run down from the exterior, not at all like the nicer ICE trains I’d ridden before. I grew more nervous with every passing minute.

Finally it was time to board. The narrow passage proved a tight squeeze for all our baggage plus car seat plus stroller plus baby, so hubby lugged it all in piece by piece while I kept watch over the little guy outside. Every time hubby reappeared to grab another item, the looks he gave me grew more and more ominous. I quickly began to realize that this decision was going to be a mistake of colossal proportions.

The toddler and I climbed aboard. Fortunately, our beds were in the very first group of berths, so we didn’t have to go far. Unfortunately, the space was so tight, our largest bag wouldn’t fit into the “room.” We had to leave it in the hallway, and we were warned by the train staff not to leave it unattended. The hallway itself was narrow as well; people literally had to climb over the suitcase if they wanted to get by us.

Tickets are available in various classes — first class for a private section of berths, and peon classes where you may or may not find yourself sleeping with people you don’t know. Which do you think I’d managed to procure? Yep. You guessed it.

Our room, if you will, consisted of six bunks packed in like a sardine can, three on each side with well-worn, not-so-clean upholstery. When we came in, some fellow travelers were already there, two 40-something Asian ladies claiming the middle bunks. Our reservation denoted that we were to occupy the top two. Not exactly smart when there’s a two-year-old in the mix. The women were kind enough to trade us beds and immediately made themselves comfortable in the top bunks. Oh, did I mention the entire car REEKED of mothballs? I found myself mouthbreathing so I wouldn’t gag.

Everyone got settled in and we started to roll. Keep in mind, it was well after midnight by now. The toddler, who so graciously fell asleep in the taxi and stayed asleep right up until we boarded the train was now completely alert and ready to party like a rock star. The Asianettes hunkered down to sleep, yet the toddler was singing round after round of “Wheels on the Bus” and “Old MacDonald” at the top of his lungs. There was no hope of getting him to lie down without an all-out screaming tantrum; we just had to wait him out.

We eventually took the toddler out into the hallway so our companions could get some rest and hubby took a seat on top of our lonely suitcase. The looks he was giving me went from ominous to murderous. The vocal stylings continued as the toddler then launched into an enthusiastic rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” followed by “Farmer in the Dell,” the Wonder Pets theme, “ABCs” and whatever else came into his little brilliant mind. At least the Asianettes didn’t mind, hubby poked his head in to get something and found them snoring like buzzsaws.

Hoping to wear the little guy down, hubby took him for a walk to find the dining car. Service was closed for the night, but at least it was empty and gave the little dude room to run around and play without disturbing anybody. I stayed behind to keep watch over the bag and tried to read. An hour later, they came back, hubby looking utterly defeated and pissed off. The toddler was still singing, and now skipping. Knowing I had some penance coming my way, I jumped up and took my lumps. The toddler and I headed back to the dining car again, weaving our way through six or seven other carriages full of quiet berths. I looked longingly at the private “suites” as we passed and mentally punished myself for not being able to convey that’s what I was after when I bought the tickets. Dammit.

After another hour or so of full-on hyperactivity, I managed to get the toddler to sit on my lap long enough to relax. Not sleep, mind you, but wind down enough to the point that when I asked him if he wanted to go lie down with daddy, I actually got a “yes.” Back we went, me trying to carry the toddler and not fall off the train in between cars, when I realized that I had no idea what number our carriage was. I figured we’d see hubby still sitting on the bag in the hall, but he was nowhere to be found. Uh oh. I’d come to the last car of the train and just stood there, holding a weary toddler and wondering what I was going to do. I didn’t even have my phone to send a text; I’d left it in my purse back on my bed, wherever that was. Just as I was contemplating lying down in the middle of the dirty hallway and praying someone would find us in the morning, the interior curtains in the compartment parted right where I was standing and hubby motioned us inside. By some stroke of sheer luck, we were standing exactly where we needed to be.

Hubby had managed to wrestle the remaining suitcase into the middle of the floor in our room and squeezed himself into one of the middle bunks. The toddler went right to him without complaint when I handed him over and settled down to sleep. I climbed into the other bunk across. Thank GOD no other passengers showed up to the claim the two remaining beds on the bottom, I can’t imagine how two more people could have possibly fit into that room.

I closed my eyes and hoped for the best, trying not to touch anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary and praying I still had a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my purse. The motion of the train was quite lulling, really. The jet-plane decibel snoring emanating from the bunk above me was not. I could not believe the noise this woman was putting out. Seriously, I was convinced at one point she was doing it on purpose. There is no way she could make that kind of a racket without waking herself up or choking to death in the process. I checked my watch. 3:45 a.m. Sigh. I closed my eyes and could literally feel the waves of resentment coming off my non-sleeping husband a few feet away. At least the toddler was depleted enough to get a solid stretch of shut-eye.

The Asian Rip Van Winkle finally woke up around 7:30 a.m., and she and her buddy started jabbering away in a language I didn’t recognize. The train conductor came by to check our tickets again. We knew we were running late, but when hubby asked him how much longer and he said another three hours, my jaw hit the floor. We were originally due in to Paris Bercy station at 8 a.m., leaving us plenty of time to take a cab to the rental apartment, drop our bags and shower before heading to the airport to collect my mother-in-law, who we’d arranged to fly in and stay with us for the weekend. As it was now, we’d be pushing to get there by the time her flight landed at 1:30 p.m. By that time, I was so exhausted, I did manage to fall into a somewhat fitful sleep for an hour or two. Really, there was nothing else to do.

At long last, we pulled into Paris around 11 a.m. I was never so glad to arrive anywhere in my entire life. Hubby told me not to speak to him unless I absolutely had to, which I respected, knowing I was totally in the wrong for this comedy of errors. I’d apologized a handful of times and didn’t know what more I could do or say to make things right, silently pledging to drug myself stupid next time and agree to get on whatever airplane might be available. I asked hubby if  he thought we’d look back on this experience someday and laugh. He said no.

Anxiously keeping an eye on the clock, we cursed some more when we saw the line for taxis extending halfway down the sidewalk outside the station. (And I wonder where the toddler recently picked up “Shit!”) Somehow by the grace of God, we eventually got a cab and made it to the rental apartment to meet the lady from the service who let us in. Hubby dashed off on his own to the airport, arriving with about 30 minutes to spare to meet my mother-in-law’s plane. Whew.

The two-bedroom Marais-situated apartment we’re renting is lovely, small but charming, up four flights of narrow winding stairs that are guaranteed to give me buns of steel after a few days. After a much-needed shower, the toddler and I ventured out for a bite of lunch at the first decent café we came across. Quiche Lorraine, salad, orange juice and a café crème fit the bill quite nicely. We managed a quick trip to the supermarket for a few essentials, then back to l’appartemente to meet up with hubby and MIL.

After a short rest, we all took a stroll around our old stomping grounds near the apartment where we stayed two years ago, stopping in for dinner at Cafe Rempart. Hubby had a traditional French croque monsieur – a devilishly rich open-faced toasted sandwich of ham and cheese with béchamel sauce. MIL enjoyed pomme frites, salad and a delicious-looking burger (which she ate in spite of the cheese. She hates cheese. This does not bode well for her enjoyment of French cuisine, I fear.) I was still somewhat full from my late-lunch quiche, so I went for a lighter dish of entrée Salade Rempart, composed of greens, carrots, tomato, fried potatoes (!), thin slices of proscuitto-ish country ham and cheese toasts. The whole thing was topped very lightly with French salad dressing, which is not at all like the unnaturally orange Kraft stuff you find back home. Here, it’s a light tangy Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

This morning, we headed to another café and partook of coffee served in clever small bowls (LOVE this, I want to find some of these to take home), and stuffed ourselves with all manner of bread and pastries.

the perfect petit dejeuner

 

Gotta love the French… A great way to fortify ourselves for a boat ride on the Seine, a visit to the Eiffel Tower and a walk through Notre Dame. A bientot!

 

Viva Milano

Here we are, back in Milan for the third time within a year. It’s funny how familiar you can become with a place after only visiting a couple of times. We stayed in the same hotel for our first two visits. We’re in a different hotel just across the street this time only because of an availability problem with our first choice. We know where the grocery stores are in the neighborhood, we know how to buy tickets and ride the trams downtown to the Duomo, and we eat at the same restaurant just down the street nearly every night. You know what they say – if it ain’t broke…

I must admit, Milan did not make a good first impression on me. I found it loud, abrasive and dirty. However, after a few days, its charms began to grow on me. Like, the way everyone (especially older women) fuss over my son. The simple beauty of the food. The gorgeous stands in the street markets and the impeccably dressed men and women everywhere you look. Seriously, I can amuse myself by checking out women’s footwear while riding on the trams. Milan may be an industrial city, but it’s definitely not without style. I find myself considering more closely what I wear here. I know I’ll never pass for a native Milano, but hopefully I’m not immediately labeling myself an American tourist.

Because I am such a terrible traveler when it comes to flying, I never take the risk to eat aboard a plane. Just in case. The last thing I want to do, in addition to desperately trying to divert a panic attack, is to end up making a fool of myself by accidentally blowing chunks all over the person seated next to me. This means that once the wheels of an overnight flight to Europe finally touch down, I am famished. Today was no exception. We landed in Milan around 9 a.m., and I realized the last solid food I’d had was a bowl of cereal prior to our original departure from Indy nearly 18 hours earlier.

After we’d grabbed a cab to our hotel and ditched our bags, we were off in search of sustenance. I’m not sure what the basic Italian breakfast is; we’ve only ever partaken of the luxurious hotel buffet for our morning meals. This standard European-model continental spread consists of all manner of pastries, yogurt, fruit, cold cereals, breads, and a selection of cold cuts and cheeses. This morning, we weren’t checked in in time to enjoy, so breakfast ended up being coffee and croissants at a café around the corner. The croissant could have been better, but it must be said:  When it comes to coffee, Italians know their shit. The cappuccinos, lattes and espressos here blow away anything you’ll find at Starbucks or anywhere else in America.

After that, we hit up the grocery to restash our toddler snacks. I love wandering the aisles of the Italian grocery stores checking out the endless varieties of pasta, olive oils and what have you. Still hungry, I ended up eating a few of Michael’s rice cakes and cheese back in the hotel room. My usual lunch when we’ve been here consists of a mozzarella and tomato sandwich. Again, when you’ve found something you like so much, why not stick with it?

Along those lines, we are loyal devotees of Il Pavone, a small and very pink pizzeria/pasta joint about two blocks away on Viale Certosa. Hubby got hooked on this place during his first trip to Milan a couple of years ago, and the toddler and I have come to adopt it as well. The hostess, a very attractive woman named Maria of an indeterminate age, recognizes us now, and she loooooooves  Michael.

The menu is pretty vast, and full of Italian cuisine’s greatest hits like tortellini pomodoro, grilled steaks, seafood, bruschetta, and a whole array of thin-crusted, wood-fired pizzas. I’ve tried a number of items on the menu during our visits, and my favorite meal remains a big plate of the lightly dressed fusilli della casa with a sumptuous tomato/pesto/cream sauce alongside an insalata mista (mixed salad) or perhaps a plate of steamed spinach. The salad is a bowl of fresh greens, tomato slices, shredded carrot and red cabbage. You’re left to your own devices to dude it up with the olive oil, balsamic, salt and pepper on every table. Same goes for the spinach, although I like to give it a liberal dusting of Parmesan cheese as well. With a quarter liter of the fizzy, citrusy house white wine for a ridiculously affordable two euros, it’s darn near the perfect dinner in my book.

We’re set to be here for three days before heading north on the train for France. The weather looks like it’s going to pour down rain the entire time we’re in Italy, but I’m determined not to let this curtail good eating. Buon appetito!

Windy City wow

Move over this little piggy, there’s a new porker in town.

Our local babysitters extraordinaire/lovely neighbors/surrogate grandparents down the street offered to take the toddler overnight so hubby and I could sneak off for a quick trip to Chicago. Hubby had to go up there to pick up his new passport and also had an Expedia credit burning a whole in his virtual pocket, so we decided to make a night of it.

After some deliberation, we booked a room at Hotel 71, right on the river at Wacker and Wabash. A competent and comfortable choice. The hotel looks mod and hipster from the outside and in the lobby, but the rooms are sumptuously furnished with subdued upscale pieces and neutral décor. We stayed on the 16th floor with an impressive view of the river and bridges below. Nice. The orange-scented bath products are worth mentioning as well, they smelled yummy enough to make your mouth water. Our only (very minor) complaints were that the water in the shower and bath wasn’t as hot as we would have liked, and there was some noise in the morning from what sounded like construction going on next door. Other than that, the location was ideal and we agreed we’d definitely stay here again.

Chicago is foodie heaven for someone like me, and the choices are dizzying. For dinner, we’d already pre-scouted thanks to recommendations from a friend who used to live there (thanks, Renate!) The Purple Pig looked fun from the get-go, and has been rated one of the top 10 new restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit. Good enough for me.

To get to the Purple Pig proper, you enter under a metal archway off Michigan Avenue and walk back along a sidewalk to the restaurant itself. The place offers indoor and outdoor (heated) seating, but it’s not large. We ended up sitting across from each other at a long indoor table, elbow to elbow with fellow diners. Fortunately, the high ceilings and the acoustics help keep the noise at a somewhat manageable level (much better than, say, Napolese…), but it still felt intimate and cozy with lots of light wood and a huge wall of glass-fronted wine racks.

Our server was really on top of his game and somehow managed to keep our whole table and then some buzzing and well taken care of. The wine list is huge and overwhelming; I finally just closed it and told our server what I liked. I don’t even know exactly what he brought me, but it was a light, fruity, fragrant red just like I’d asked for. Hubby was pleased with his glass as well, a more assertive red with distinctive jammy but not sweet flavors.

The Purple Pig advertises “cheese, wine and swine,” and that’s pretty accurate. The menu is full of Mediterranean-tinged, small-plate tapas goodies. Now, I’m usually not all that crazy about tapas because I would usually rather eat a full serving of one thing I really like than a few bites each of half a dozen different dishes. Plus, I don’t like sharing my food. Tonight, though, this was somehow perfect. It was terribly difficult to make choices because so many things sounded tempting. The fact that hubby hates seafood helped narrow options down somewhat, as did obvious items like pig’s ears and tails that we both agreed were not personally appealing. We subtly tried to check out what our fellow diners were eating for inspiration; not difficult considering our quarters were so close, we could have just reached over and eaten off their plates.

We started with two dishes from the fried portion of the menu – breaded chorizo-stuffed olives with a lemony mayonnaise underneath, and proscuitto bread balls that came with a mild tomato sauce. I was a little surprised we only got five smallish pieces with each, but the flavors were so bold and vibrant, that was really all we needed. The savory green olives were good, but the proscuitto balls were AWESOME, a steaming-hot hush puppyish concoction with a crispy browned outer crust. The tomato sauce was a little bland, but a great complementary foil for the much saltier bread balls.

Next up was a sharable plate of mixed green salad with slivered pieces of asparagus, crushed hazelnuts and a citrusy vinaigrette dressing. Light, lovely and a refreshing way to cleanse our palates after the fried treats. We’d already started perusing the menu again by this point, looking for other items to order. The cured meats and cheeses are always a hit with both of us, but we looked beyond to the “smears,” a series of spreadable offerings delivered with slices of crusty brioche or Italian peasant bread. Hubby fought for the whipped feta with sliced cucumbers, but I lobbied hard for the eggplant caponata with goat cheese and won.

The serving size of the smear was pretty substantial – five slices of bread, each slathered with soft goat cheese that made a just-right base for the messy but delicious caponata. The chunky eggplant spread was like a sweet-and-spicy chutney with a nice vinegary tang and plump golden raisins (no onion, thank God!)

Hubby had his eye on the chicken thigh kebabs with fried smashed potatoes and tzatziki or the Jimmy’s housemade Greek sausage with rapini and grapes from the larger-portion “la plancha” selections, but let himself be swayed by the server’s suggestion to try the pork blade steak instead. And again, props to the server – this was fantastic, and something we never would have ordered of our own volition. The steak was a thin but generous piece of meat that had been brined in a salt solution, then quick grilled on both sides and topped with a little honey, arugula and parmesan cheese. A sweet and salty masterpiece. There were a few fatty bits here and there that we spit out, but the meat for the most part was tender and delicious. And underneath was what I thought at first glimpse to be sliced tomatoes, but was actually something called “ ‘Njuda,” a soft spreadable form of salami.

By the time we polished off the pork steak, we were starting to feel pleasantly full. The desserts were intriguing, especially the olive oil soft-serve ice cream, but we decided not to overstuff ourselves and went straight to the check. We were fully expecting a bill of at least $100, and were surprised and even a little shocked that our total was only $71. VERY fair considering the amount of quality of food and wine we enjoyed.

If you’re in Chicago and looking for a fun, scrumptious, pseudo-communal dining experience, pay a visit to the Purple Pig. I wish, wish, wish we would have taken a camera in with us. However, you can get a gander at the menu, the décor and some of the dishes for yourself at www.thepurplepigchicago.com. You’re welcome.

Incidentally, after the Purple Pig, we had a drink at the Redhead Piano Bar, then ended up at Blue Chicago. A colorful evening, to say the least.

The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon