Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Toto, I don't think we're in Switzerland anymore...

I spent nearly all of June in the United States. The trip was wonderful, of course. I got to visit friends and family, drive everywhere, indulge in proper barbecues, bask in air-conditioned homes, and of course stock up at the local Target and Wal-mart! Still, I could tell that my time abroad has changed me. Top ten moments from the trip:
  1. "Wow, these [clothes/shoes/food] are such a good deal!"
    ~ on multiple occasions while shopping with a friend in the West Village
  2. "Have American beds always been so short?"
    ~ on seeing Swissy Pie's feet sticking out over the queen-sized mattress (they don't in our bed)
  3. "What's this Top Chef show everyone is talking about?"
    ~ at Perilla, a restaurant in New York recently opened by 2006 season winner Harold Dieterle
  4. "What's wrong with you guys?"
    ~ on being told there's no recycling in my Kentucky hometown - because the city thinks it's too expensive
  5. "These yolks look weird."
    ~ while cracking some nominally organic free-range eggs from the supermarket, which nevertheless have much paler yolks than European eggs
  6. "This is NOT cheese!"
    ~ tasting some locally made product from Kentucky
  7. "What kind of crap farmer's market is this?"
    ~ on seeing signs for produce from California, Georgia, and the Carolias being sold in Kentucky
  8. "Oh my God, I can understand everything on TV!"
    ~ flipping through the 999 cable channels at my sister's apartment
  9. "Where did all these friggin' cars come from?"
    ~ on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at 3 pm, headed to Manhattan from JFK - this was NOT rush hour
  10. "Grüezi... uh, I mean, hello!"
    ~ to the immigration officer upon arrival at JFK

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Vampires Are Alive!

They'll probably never star in any horror movies, but as far as I'm concerned, aphids are evil, evil monsters. Called Blattläuse in German - leaf lice, which is very appropriate given their green but otherwise tiny, lice-like bodies - these sap-suckers have killed my cilantro.

Admittedly, I could be written up on charges of plant neglect, given that I first spotted the creatures about two weeks ago. Even if I hadn't been keeping a close eye on the plant, which was already looking a bit strung out and not terribly healthy, the aphids would've been difficult not to notice. They seemed to emerge from nowhere to swarm my cilantro. Once infected, the plant's stems looked like they'd sprouted boils all over.

I did have good intentions, though. I first thought to go to Obi for some insecticide, though the idea of using the herb for cooking afterward put me off a bit. Then I remembered an offhand comment from Swissy Pie, about some nettles I'd stepped in because I didn't recognize them as such. (They didn't look like the kind I was used to in the States.) Apparently some people boil the leaves and use the liquid to kill aphids. But that was not a very specific formua, and besides, I was a bit wary about picking a plant that had given me a rather unpleasant rash on both calves. So in the end, I just tried to wash off the little buggers, which only worked for a couple of days.

Oddly, the basil and parsley plants right next to the cilantro have remained untouched; the rosemary and thyme don't seem to appeal to them either. Hopefully things will stay that way.

Not that it'll matter too much. We're headed for the United States today, and by the time Swissy Pie gets back in a week, the herbs will probably all be dead, anyway - unless there's a good bit of rain in Basel in the meantime.

As long as we're not greeted by singing, leather-clad Blattläuse...

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Strawberries, cherries, and an angel's kiss in spring

"It's snowing in the Black Forest," Swissy Pie announced yesterday afternoon.

"What? No kidding!"

My surprise wasn't for the snow, precisely. Outside the apartment, a cold, heavy rain was intermittently pelting our courtyard. Though it had warmed up since morning, temperatures were still hovering around 14°C, and I knew from unfortunate personal experience how much colder mountain peaks could be than valleys. Given our weather in Basel, I had no problems believing that it was snowing on top of Blauen.

What was so disorienting was that two short days ago, snow was the last thing I'd have expected to see. At the time, we were being oppressed by a heavy, humid air mass that left us sticky with sweat. On Friday our thermometer registered 31°C (nearly 90°F); Saturday was little better. So, my mind was already in summer mode. A little early, given it's only May, but still, snow simply didn't fit into the picture.

We had to see for ourselves. Piling into our car, we set off for Germany.

I can't remember the last time we drove just to drive - back when Swissy Pie was still trying to sell me on moving to Europe, perhaps. But our adventure soon took on a life of its own. Without a particular destination in mind (though I had a vague idea we'd head for Blauen), Swissy Pie was free to take impromptu detours and make spur-of-the-moment decisions to check out off-the-beaten-track places such as the tiny town of Vogelbach, and a cemetery for local soldiers who'd fallen during the World Wars.

On the first such detour, we discovered Ötlingen, a charming town with fantastic views over Basel, the Alsace, and Germany. Somewhere between there and Kandern, we came across a roadside farm stand that was doing a brisk business for locals and foreigners alike. Several cars were pulled into the make-shift gravel parking lot. Part of the draw was that it was Pfingsten Montag, so almost all stores and many restaurants were closed. But really, these roadside stands are the best places to buy produce that's fresh, local, and delicious.

"What do they have?" Swissy Pie asked as we zoomed past.

"Um, I just saw strawberries."

"Just strawberries? That can't be."

I'm not certain what made him turn the car around, the prospect of proving me wrong, or the prospect of strawberries with quark for dessert. (In his defense, he never seems to tire of strawberries and quark.) Whatever the case, a minute later, we were crunching into the lot, right behind a Dutch car.

The stand sold strawberries, alright - cardboard boxes filled with giant, fragrant berries. But Swissy Pie was right. There were lots of other goods, from apples and potatoes, to fresh bread, to apple juice and milk. But real treasure was right next to the strawberries: plastic containers mounded high with the first local cherries we'd seen this season. Like the asparagus, they were early - but nontheless very welcome.

We grabbed a box each of the strawberries and cherries, as well as six enormous eggs (laid by free-range chickens, of course), and continued on our way. By now we were entirely distracted from the snow. We were too busy snacking on our cherries. So when I saw a sign for someplace called Schloss Bürgeln, I didn't hesitate to express an interest in seeing it. (Schloss is the German word for castle.)

Swissy Pie duly drove us up the narrow, thickly forested approach. Aside from being beautiful, it had the added advantage of giving me cover to toss a handful of stems and pits out the window. (I didn't feel bad - they're biodegradable, after all. And I figured cherry trees would be a nice addition to the land.)

At the end of the road, we came to a small parking lot, a trailhead for at least ten different walking paths, and a single paved path leading directly up to the Schloss. We opted for one of the more scenic routes through the forest, which was densely populated with stands of beech and fir trees; black, orange, and brown slugs; mice (or at least their holes); and buzzards. Near the castle, the woods gave way to fields of chamomile, nettle, and yarrow, trampled down and glistening with rain. We had to detour to avoid the occasional wild rose bush and Weinbergschnecken, large edible snails that are considered a delicacy in France (though Swissy Pie seemed to have little interest in adding them to our dinner menu).

The Schloss itself was a surprise. Though I could tell from the signs below that it was still in good condition - it boasted a restaurant, after all - I'd expected something similar to Burg Baden, only better maintained. But instead of a towering stone edifice, we saw a gracious estate mansion that wouldn't be out of place in a Jane Austen novel. A tangle of rose gardens, half-wild, half-manicured, surrounded the house. Wild strawberries peeked through the ivy encircling its walls. And the menu for both the restaurant and the terrace cafe looked quite appealing. Too bad nothing was open for the holiday - this is yet another place we're putting on our To Revisit list. (Note: Tuesdays are Ruhetage - in other words, it's closed.)

By the time we got back to the car, it was getting late, so after a short stop for me to pick wildflowers, we headed home. We never did make it to Blauen to verify the snow report. But at least we had a blast not going!

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Don't stay out of the rhubarb

I admit it: until recently, I was terrified of rhubarb.

No, I didn't think it was one of the monsters who lived under my bed, nor did I fear it would jump out of the refrigerator and attack me in the middle of the night. I was just worried it would kill me.

Where did this unreasonable phobia develop? As best as I can guess, during high school biology class, when I learned that the leaves of the rhubarb plant are filled with the poison oxalic acid. For some reason, that left a very strong impression on me - perhaps because we also learned that as little as 2 tablespoons of antifreeze can kill an adult. (And why is antifreeze so toxic? Because the body metabolizes it into oxalic acid. You see the theme of the lesson.)

In my mind, "a little bit of antifreeze" soon morphed into "a little bit of rhubarb," and I began treating the plant the way I treated pufferfish: as a high-risk edible. I did indulge in the occasional slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie (as well as the occasional slice of pufferfish), but still, I figured the handling was best left to professionals.

Until last week. Buoyed by Swissy Pie's declaration that he loved rhubarb, I decided that really, I was well-educated enough to distinguish the leaves of the friggin' plant from the rest of it, dammit. So when we went to Fünfschilling, a farm/restaurant in Germany that sells its own top-notch produce, I picked out a few stalks (which had already been stripped of their leaves, anyway), plopped them down alongside the strawberries and apples, and took them home.

We were so busy with stuffing ourselves with strawberries and quark that it took a few days for me to get around to the rhubarb. OK, so maybe I was procrastinating, just a little. Besides, I didn't know what to make. At first I was leaning toward a classic pie, but I'd just made an apple and pear tarte tatin to use up some rapidly ripening Alexanders in my fruit basket, as well as a tomato tart for similar reasons. So I decided to stick with the basics and make a compote, which we could have with quark or vanilla ice cream.

No more than 20 minutes could have elapsed between when I took the rhubarb from the refrigerator to when I stuck the finished compote back it. It's really that easy. And it's pretty yummy, too.

So for anyone else out there who's afraid of rhubarb, don't be. I just had some with a scoop of ice cream, and I'm not dead yet. (And if that doesn't convince you, it turns out there's oxalic acid in many other foods too, including spinach, black pepper, most berries, cocoa, and chocolate. Bet you've been eating oxalic acid all your life!)

Basic Rhubarb Compote

  • 500 g rhubarb (about 5 stalks)
  • 200 g sugar (about 3/4 cups)
  • 2 Tbsp water

For best flavor, choose firm, bright red stalks that aren't too thick. (Thicker stalks are stringier.)

Lop off the tops just where they pinch in (before the leaves begin), and trim the bottoms where the stalks were cut.
Slice the rhubarb into 1 cm (1/2 inch) pieces.

In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the rhubarb, sugar, and water.
Stir occasionally. When the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is simmering, cover the pot and cook until the rhubarb is tender, 5-10 minutes depending on the size of the rhubarb.

Cool and store in the refrigerator until needed.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

War and Peace

In Switzerland, May apparently serves as a warm-up for summer. Humidity levels have been rising, local grocery chains have begun to offer bonus points for their shopper loyalty programs, and due to the heavy holiday schedule, people spend nearly as much time not working as working. The day before a holiday, many people get half-days at the office; and if a holiday falls on a Thursday, the Friday afterward is generally free as well. As a result, Swissy Pie has three 3- or 4-day weekends this month: Labor Day was on May 1; this week is Ascension (Ausfahrt if you're a Swiss German, Christi Himmelfahrt if you're a proper German); and Pentecost (Pfingsten) comes next week.

The problem with long weekends is that they make for horrid traffic conditions on the roads. Trucks are swarming off the autobahn, just as everyone is trying to get to whereever they're spending their mini-holiday. And for those of us who stay behind, we have to scurry to stock up on groceries because stores won't be open. Wednesday afternoon, it took us nearly an hour to get over to Germany to do our shopping for the weekend when it usually takes about ten minutes. Mostly it was bad traffic: the entire Alsace looked like it was being evacuated before a hurricane. But it didn't help that border control in all three countries seemed determined to check everyone both leaving and entering. We'd have gone over by bicycle, if it hadn't been for the lashing rainstorm that was intent on making everyone even more miserable.

Such annoyances are luckily only temporary. By the time the weekend started in earnest, on Thursday, heavy traffic was nothing but a bad memory. Unfortunately, the rain stuck around a little longer, so we weren't able to go off on any cycling trips until Friday.

Since I wanted to go back to France, Swissy Pie nosed around for a new spot there for us to explore. He came up with the Route des Crêtes, an old military road constructed during World War I which runs 80 km through the Vosges. Promising little traffic and beautiful scenery, it sounded quite appealing: I envisioned empty tarmac threading through the feet of the mountains. Rolling terrain, perhaps, but nothing terribly challenging. (I was feeling lazy.) In my mind, it was perfect.

So we set off, going first to the rather depressing city of Mulhouse, where we belatedly acquired a map of the region, and then to the cute little town of Cernay, where signposts for the Route des Crêtes began to appear. So far, so good.

But then, we hit Uffholz, and as is the wont whenever Swissy Pie is involved - whether he intends it or not is debatable - the road started tilting slowly, inevitably up. By the time we passed from the village to its Forêt Communale, we were climbing steadily, and sometimes, fairly steeply. At last we found a mud and gravel clearing that was supposed to be a parking lot, pulled out the bikes, and promptly started up the mountain. So much for the rolling terrain I'd been hoping for.

If my French were better (or if I'd looked up the words before we left), I'd have realized my mistake much sooner: crête means crest, as in a mountain peak. But then we might have missed out on a beautiful ride. And though the terrain wasn't easy, with slopes up to 12%, it was never impossible. Evergreens shaded the pavement; cliffs and curves hid the upcoming challenges. It wasn't until I was near the top that I could look out over the Rhine Valley and realize how far I'd climbed.

At the first crest, where Swissy Pie was waiting - as usual, he'd taken off and left me crawling in his wake - we ventured into the woods to look down on Mulhouse and the towns of Alsace.

That's where we found this guy sunning himself on a rock...

...and this unidentified ruin.

As we got back on our bikes, I was feeling quite pleased with myself. But then, we made a short little descent, rode along the ridge for a couple of kilometers, cranked our way to a somewhat higher pass - and found ourselves in the middle of a large parking lot. A road sign informed us that we'd arrived in Vieil Armand.

Dozens of tourists were climbing out of cars and buses to make their way to a low-slung building that was clearly a some sort of memorial. Since we were already there, we decided to see what the fuss was all about. We picked our way along the grass-lined walkway, clip-clopped across the red stone terrace in our awkward cycling shoes, and looked down.

On the other side of the hill, stretching down to the bottom of the slope, lay row upon row of stone crosses, the graves of the 30,000 soldiers who were killed in Vieil Armand during the First World War. 30,000 young men, who had died in the trenches just beyond the cemetery. 30,000 young men, who had come up by the very road we were now cycling on. A road that was built for the sole purpose of bringing them to the front, and keeping them there.

It's difficult to describe what I felt at that moment. Sadness, of course, that so many had lost their lives. Shock that so many had lost them in this single remote mountain. (While I knew that nearly 1.5 million French troops were killed during World War I, it was something else to be confronted with part of that evidence.) Some cognitive dissonance, that this peaceful, shady wood was not too long ago stripped bare and ripped apart by war. And guilt, too, that I'd forgotten how much bloodshed had taken place in the Alsace-Schwarzwald region. Though it's obvious in retrospect, this morning I hadn't really considered the implications of the
Route des Crêtes being military road. It was a bit strange to think that the only reason I could enjoy my ride today was because the 30,000 bodies lying beneath my feet had once needed to be fed.

I spent some time wandering among the graves, reading the names. Many were obviously French; others clearly had German ancestors, reflecting the region's split identity. There was even a Muslim man, whose headstone was quite unique. I wondered if he had fit in with his comrades while he was alive, because in death, he was clearly set apart. (Come to think of it, did the French French trust the French Germans?) But they all had one thing in common: MORT POUR LA FRANCE.

After that, it was difficult not to be reminded of the region's bloody history wherever we went: the German names that most of the towns bore (Altenbach, Guebwiller, Issenheim), the dual names of a few others (Vieil Armand/Hartmannswillerkopf), the concrete bunkers in the Petit Camargue and Forêt Dominale de la Hardt, the cone-shaped bomb craters off the cycling trails there, the separate cemeteries for French and German soldiers in Cernay. Even the horrid bunker-like apartment buildings from the 50s and 60s are a legacy of the wars (though other places, like Basel, inflicted the ugliness on themselves).

Only when Swissy Pie's shifter cable broke, partway up Le Grand Ballon d'Alsace, did my focus snap back to the present. He was stuck in big gears for the rest of the trip, and a great deal of mountainous terrain lay between us and our car. How he made it when I needed my easiest gears, I'll never know; how he recovered to go back to conquer Grand Ballon the next day is an even greater mystery.

But it's far more pleasant to wonder about that, than about the dead who lie in Vieil Armand.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Call of the Wild

I need drugs. Badly. Allergy season has turned me into a snot-nosed, red-eyed wreck. People can hear me coming from at least 100 meters away: even Swissy Pie, whose ears function about as well as Helen Keller's when he's on his bicycle, kept looking over in amazement today whenever I shot off a volley of sneezes. By the time we got home from our ride, I looked like Lord Voldemort. Or Darth Maul. (Hey, Harry Potter was on TV yesterday, and tonight we got Star Wars, so right now mediocre fantasy movies come easily to mind.)

It's been a long time since I've suffered from hayfever. When I was young, I had to stay indoors during recess because of it. But I thought I'd outgrown my allergies. In New York, only the cherry blossoms in Central Park triggered it, and it was easy enough to avoid the area behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the two weeks they were flowering. I guess there just wasn't enough greenery in that city to set off my symptoms. Ah, how I miss living in a concrete jungle!

But I refuse to let my wayward immune system keep me indoors - not when there are places like Badenweiler to be discovered.

We came upon the town entirely by accident. On Saturday, we'd taken a friend of mine from college up to Blauen to do a bit of light hiking. Though it was a little hazy and quite windy, we managed to get in a good walk, complete with views.

Afterward, Swissy Pie was still feeling adventurous, so he descended via a different route, which took us by Badenweiler. Nestled between the mountains of the Black Forest and the vineyards of Markgräflerland, the town is beautiful, with a picturesque Neo-Romanesque church, painstakingly landscaped greens, elegant outdoors restaurants and cafes, and a number of posh-looking spas with saunas, mudbaths, hot springs, and other treatments. My friend seemed quite interested in the sauna - he kept pointing out that it only cost 10 euros - but as it was rather late, we had to content ourselves with exploring Burg Baden, a ruined castle overlooking the town.

First built in the 1100s, the castle is part of the beautiful Kurpark (which also showcases subtropical plants, gardens, as well as an old tea pavilion, the Belvedere). Though Swissy Pie translated the signs that explained the ruin's history, the views from its walls distracted me too much for the information to stick. All I can recall is that Elizabeth of Burgundy once lived here, so the land must have exchanged hands at least a couple of times. I suppose it's worth fighting for!

Since Badenweiler is only about 30 km from Basel, we'll certainly be back to finish exploring the rest of the town, and to give the hot springs a try. And with any luck, I won't spend half of the next visit blowing my nose...

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

When we lived in New York, we went to Señor Swanky’s, a tacky Mexican joint not too far from my apartment, more or less once a week. Aside from a high calories-per-dollar-spent ratio, it featured cheap plastic tables (although happily, they were outdoors), indifferent service, decent chips and salsa (when the servers remembered to bring them out), and gigantic burritos roughly the size and weight of a brick. The latter were the draw for Swissy Pie: he adored those burritos. But while I agreed that they were quite tasty, I generally avoided them, in favor of something that would leave me capable of walking home afterward.

Ususally, I ordered the enchiladas. Sometime during my childhood - very likely during a visit to Chi-Chi’s - I’d gotten the impression that I liked them. But at Señor Swanky’s, I always ended up disappointed. They were too heavy, too cheesy, too bland… Yet I kept getting them. Apparently, I’m a slow learner.

Now that we’re over 3000 miles from our old haunt, we don’t eat Mexican very much. But when we do, it’s prepared just the way I like it. (Not too surprising, since I’m the one who has to do the preparing!) At last, I can have enchiladas every bit as good as the ones in my memory.

As a general rule, I avoid using jarred sauces from the grocery store shelves. Although making mole sauce from scratch requires a bit of extra time, everything from the chicken to the sauce can be prepared in advance. To me, the results are worth the effort.

Enchiladas Un-Swiss Miss

for the mole sauce:
1 C. canned whole tomatoes
2 garlic cloves

2 Tbsp. flour
2 Tbsp. chili powder
1 Tbsp. cocoa powder
1 tsp. ground cumin

2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp olive oil

2 C. chicken broth or water
1 Tbsp. molasses or brown sugar
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
pinch cinnamon
2 tsp. salt (reduce if using chicken broth)

for the enchiladas:
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1/2 C pitted green olives, diced
2 whole chicken breasts, poached and shredded

8 8-in corn or flour tortillas
8 oz finely shredded Emmentaler or Swiss cheese
1/4 C pitted green olives, sliced

Make the sauce:
Put the canned tomatoes and garlic in a blender and process until smooth. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, chili powder, cocoa, and cumin until blended.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter in the 2 Tbsp. olive oil. When the butter starts to foam, add the flour mixture and cook, stirring, 2-3 minutes.

Slowly pour in the chicken stock, whisking to ensure the sauce stays smooth and lump-free. Whisk in the tomato-garlic puree, molasses, tomato paste, cinnamon, and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thick and glossy, approximately 5 minutes. Set aside. The sauce may be cooled and refrigerated, but bring to room temperature before assembling the enchiladas.

Assemble the enchiladas:
Preheat the oven to 350ºF (175ºC, or if using a convection oven, 160ºC).

Set aside 1/2 C. of the diced tomatoes for garnish.

In a medium skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until softened. Add the diced olives, remaining tomatoes, and shredded chicken. Cook until just heated through. Divide into 8 equal portions.

Dip a tortilla in the mole sauce to cover. Place a portion of chicken and approximately 2 Tbsp. cheese down the center of the tortilla, roll up the tortilla, and place in a 9”x13” casserole.

When all the enchiladas are assembled, pour the remaining mole sauce over the casserole, sprinkle with the leftover cheese, and scatter the olive slices on top.

Bake the enchiladas for 30 minutes (20 minutes if using a convection oven). Garnish with the reserved diced tomatoes and serve.


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