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No menus: A spontaneous weekend in Milan

Written by Emmy on 25 March 2014

Originally written in February 2013.

Spending the early part of 2013 in Switzerland had its ups and downs. The frequent flights were long and tiring, and being so far away from home had its drawbacks. But being in Europe is really nothing to complain about, and part of what makes it so wonderful is how close to the rest of Europe everything is.

So on the first weekend of February, I hopped on a train from Basel to Milan — a four-hour journey through the beautiful mountains and met my boyfriend Michael in the Northern Italian city for a quick weekend trip.

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Why Milan? Well for one, we could both get there. After my various traumas with flights in and around snowy Switzerland, I had a strong preference for a train destination. (And it was a good choice; it snowed in Basel that day and half the flights were grounded.) As a business metropolis, Milan also has frequent flights to and from the U.S. Milan also felt like the kind of city we would want to see in 36 hours — there would be enough to keep us occupied and interested, but not so much that we would be overwhelmed or feel like we had missed things. The allure of genuine Italian food didn’t hurt either.

Michael arrived early Friday morning, but I didn’t pull into Milano Centrale until the early evening. The train had been running with precision-like clockwork till we hit the Swiss-Italian border and then we seemed to putter around with no attention to schedule for a while, a true testament to the two nations’ stereotypes.

Determined to spend our few days as the natives would, we kicked our evening off with an apertivo. Italian bars traditionally put out a spread of appetizers, which a drink purchase entitles you to graze to your heart’s content. For many, this serves as a cheap alternative to dinner. We still fully planned to have dinner, but for experience’s sake, picked at a few different foccacias and antipasti while sipping our brightly-colored Campari cocktails.

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At the recommendation of an Italian friend of Michael’s, we found our way to the tiny Boccondivino for dinner. The restaurant is known for its incredibly expansive cheese selection, among other things, which was enough of an attraction for me on its own.

We arrived at the restaurant not entirely sure what to expect, were seated and immediately handed glasses of sparkling wine as a welcome gift. Our table was covered in a glass bowl filled with fresh vegetables — carrot sticks, bunches of celery, whole tomatoes. We were confused; was this decoration or consumable? We were promptly handed a small cup each, instructed to mix oil and vinegar in our cups, dip our vegetables, and repeat. (Passover-based jokes about dipping ensued.)

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Our waiter came over to greet us and more or less informed us that we would have no say in the food to come. He asked if we wanted to choose our wine; the right answer was clearly that we would leave it in his hands. When we responded by turning over responsibility, he smiled and told us we would enjoy our evening.

First, we were served a very large plate of cured meats. They were arranged in a specific order and they were explained, but that quickly went over both of our heads. Armed with a new bottle of wine, we dug into our meats. As I was struggling to finish my plate, our waiter came over with a new platter of offerings. And just as we started to make any sort of reasonable dent in them, he brought over an impressively large cutting board with a big leg of something on it, and artfully started slicing. I didn’t even know what to do at this point, but the wine helped.

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We digested our meat for a little while — one lovely thing about the dinner was that no aspect of it was rushed whatsoever — and continued to wash it all down with wine. After a short rest, the waiter came back with two kinds of pasta. One, pappardelle with lamb ragu, was served directly out of a parmesan rind — an innovative serving dish if I’ve ever seen one. The other came out of a normal chafing dish — a cheesy mushroom risotto. Both were rich and delicious, and a small serving of each provided a wonderful tasting.

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At this point, we were about two hours in — and it was time for the restaurant’s claim to fame. Out rolled the cheese cart, and I got extremely excited. (Anyone who knows me would not be surprised by this.) After ooh-ing and aah-ing over the spread, we took in two courses. First, the soft cheeses: burrata, ricotta and mozzarella.

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We picked out our own hard cheeses, selecting a gorgonzola (the local region’s claim to fame), a pecorino (because when in Italy…) and whatever else our waiter recommended. And yes, the cheese came with a new bottle of wine.

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By the time dessert came, we were thoroughly overwhelmed. We were first each given a small bowl of sorbet — a light palette cleanser — but that wasn’t enough. We were then given a saucepan, filled to the brim with small biscotti, and goblets of sweet dessert wine. We were instructed to give our biscotti a bath before eating them, which turned into a really fun activity, but after losing a good number of mine to the bottom of my glass, it was time for us to call it quits. We had originally had ambitions of going out after dinner, but nearly four hours after we arrived, it was officially time to retire for the evening.

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Waking up was a bit of a challenge the next morning. After we were finally able to get up and put ourselves back together, we headed into the old part of the city. Historic Milan was built hundreds of years ago, with stunning Gothic and Roman architecture; the rest of the city grew out around it and today serves as the center of business and industry for Italy. Despite the city’s overall largess, it was manageable to see in such a short time because we stuck to just the center.

Navigating down thin cobblestone streets with every designer label you have ever heard of, we made our way to the center, home to the Duomo and several other historic buildings — including a majestic mall with incredible architecture. So what if it’s filled with modern clothing stores now?

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We spent the morning getting our bearings, walking through the old cobbled streets – and through beautiful food stores. When we got hungry enough for lunch, we located Paper Moon, a classic lunch spot recommended by just about everyone we asked for Milan recommendations.

I ordered linguini with clams, delightful in its simplicity. It tasted just like linguini with clams is supposed to taste. I was reprimanded for even asking if I could have some parmesan cheese (it is, after all, a taboo to add it to the dish), and I’m glad I was disallowed.

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IMG_4182Michael ordered the margarita pizza, which also arrived exactly as it should — simple, beautiful, and delicious. But a bit more food than we were able to consume, and so we left Paper Moon with leftover food on the table, but a recommendation we were happy to continue passing on.

We spent part of the afternoon at the Museo del Novocento — the Museum of the Twentieth-Century. My sister Jessica has discerning tastes when it comes to museums; in her review of Milan from a past visit, she said she didn’t remember one of the city’s museums, but found the Novocento “surprisingly good.” Taking that as more or less a rave review, we paid the museum a visit.

The museum was tucked into a corner of the old square. A tall and skinny structure, we made our way through six or so little floors of artwork – among them, some of the more impressive names in European 20th century art. Its height and position also gave spectacular views of the nearby Duomo, which we planned to climb the next morning.

After looking at some art, we naturally needed a snack. Living like the locals, we picked up two cups of gelato.

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We spent the remaining daylight hours walking the city, blurring the line between the old and the new parts. On one street, you have majestic buildings and cobblestones; walk through an alleyway and you are surrounded by every designer you have ever (and never) heard of. We walked into a few stores, said “buongiorno” and looked around, but you need to be far more serious than we to shop among the Milanos. The most interesting stop we made was not at the native jewel Prada or at the hilariously named Car Shoes, but at a store-slash-gallery-slash-cafe called 10 Corso Como, where we browsed art books, extremely bizarre photographs, and fun modern furniture.

For dinner, we followed another suggestion of Michael’s friend, since night one had been such a success. Once again, we did not order any of our own food and we had a delicious meal, but it turned out to be wildly different.

We walked into Antica Hostaria della Lanterna and were greeted by an older man, presumably the proprietor, who was more or less just hanging out. We tried to explain that we had a reservation and he pointed toward his wife — who was running from table to table as the only server in the establishment — and went back to minding his own business. Every review we read had discussed how Signora Paula commands the entire establishment, so we determined this must be she.

After several minutes of waiting, she directed us to a table and left us for a bit. When she came back, she started to us in a rapid-fire fashion. Only problem? Neither of us really speak Italian. And to further complicate, she was speaking a local dialect — making my seventh-grade Italian knowledge particularly useless. Upon realizing that we did not follow a single thing she had said, she walked over to a large table of young Italians and asked them loudly if any spoke English. She located a woman who did, and dragged her over to our table to translate. After a bit of back and forth, we learned that we were each supposed to choose a pasta to start. To be fair, we had caught the descriptions of the pasta dishes — we had just been a bit mystified about the ordering procedure.

With that taken care of, we were soon served one penne bolognese and one gnocchi in a cheese sauce, alongside a small carafe of a table wine. I felt like how I would imagine eating in your Italian grandmother’s kitchen must feel.

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Both pastas were very simple — there were few frills to our dinner at all. But these were clearly Signora Paula’s home-cooked recipes. Both pastas were also very large — and yet, intended to be consumed as an appetizer. Looking around at the skinny Italians packing away their pastas and their main courses, we were amazed as we struggled to clear our plates. Still, do as the locals do. When Paula came back to clear our pasta plates, we made our best effort to communicate that we each wanted one of the main courses and that we would share. We had absolutely no idea what we had ordered, and only reasonable confidence that our order had been transmitted as intended.

And yet, after only a few more minutes, we received two heaping plates. With our translator gone, we were left to figure out what we had received. Based on my limited knowledge of the Lombardy region — the part of Italy that contains Milan — I knew we would encounter some heavier, almost Germanic food items. We deduced that what we had been served included a veal dish, sort of like a veal marsala, and some sort of meat stew, both with a side of polenta. We put them both in the center of the table and attempted to make a dent in the very large platters.

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When Paula came back to clear our plates and saw how much the two of us had been able to eat, she basically shook her head at us and nearly forbade us from ordering dessert. She conceded, but we were permitted only one item. (Truly — she had more options; she just didn’t trust we could do them justice.) She let us have a single tiramisu, which, OK, we didn’t even finish. But it was very good!

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Full and content, we went to bed.

We then started Sunday morning as any good Italians would: with cappuccinos and a pastry.

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Sunday turned out to be a beautiful day, making it perfect for climbing up the stairs of Milan’s duomo to take in a vista of the city. (I think duomo-climbing must be a required activity in any Italian city.)

On our way up, we encountered a few puzzling signs…

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…and some beautiful architecture.

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IMG_4242The climb was not all too strenuous — but everything else about it was pretty spectacular. Milan’s cathedral is the fifth largest in the world, and the largest in Italy. All of the old city was designed around the structure — and eventually the new city that grew out from it — putting us in the exact center of everything, and high, high above it. Streets radiated out from below us in every possible direction, with various religious figures looking out toward the horizon.

Despite having taken a train through them, I had forgotten just how close to the mountains we were. With the sky such a clear blue, we had a spectacular view.

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The top of the duomo was awfully spacious, and so we spent a fair bit of time exploring it along with all the other tourists.

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We eventually descended the stairs and strolled around square housing the duomo. We walked into Rinoscente, Milan’s major department store, where we zeroed in on the food floor, naturally, checking out homemade mozzarella, spectacular jarred vegetables and 100 euro bottles of water. (The bottles were covered in rhinestones, but still — we were confused.)

We waved goodbye to the duomo and Michael waved goodbye to Milan, off to the airport to make his way back to America.

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I had a few hours until my train back to Switzerland, so naturally, kept on eating. Given our wildly successful track record with suggestions from friends, I picked one last spot from our collective list, and one of the only open on Sundays. I navigated my way by subway to an adorable restaurant, filled with families coming from church. Not only was I the only solo diner, but I was the only person at a table smaller than six. But it still felt friendly to be among them. And to make it even better, I was once again welcome with a cup of crudite and instructions to dip.

I had been in the market for risotto — which Milan is known for more than pasta — but because it was Sunday, I was greeted with something slightly different. Risotto al salto is what you get on Sundays — it’s Saturday night’s risotto, packed into cake form, and pan fried till the edges get a little crispy. It’s a risotto latke! And mine came with sauteed mushrooms on top. It was not entirely what I was expecting when I went on a risotto hunt, but it was good all the same.

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Despite having just eaten my lunch, I was trained well. My departure was looming close and I had a four-hour train ride ahead, one that would land me in a country whose food I’m just less excited about. And so I sensibly did what my mother always taught me and got myself a packed dinner for the trip ahead. I headed back to Rinoscente and its spectacular rooftop food court, visited the Obika Mozzarella Bar, and got myself a to-go box. (One flaw: I forgot to get silverware and the train had none they would give me, save for a tiny spoon meant for stirring espresso. So I ate my cheese in very small bites.)

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As I sat in my train car, rolling north up through the Alps and passing spectacular landscapes before becoming blanketed in the darkness of the night, it was hard not to smile in reflection of a spontaneous, delicious and wonderful weekend.

Working my way across the ocean

Written by Emmy on 19 May 2013

When I took a job out of college that involved a lot of travel, I was not exactly expecting glamour. I had been braced for a few years of toodling around America’s best office parks in my stylish rental car. Still, I was excited about the idea and I reaped benefits even in the most unexpected places.

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But mixed in with innumerable journeys up and down the Jersey Turnpike, I’ve also seen my fair share of excitement, spending a fair amount of time in my own city of New York and jetting off to fun destinations like San Francisco. The particular relevance of my work experiences to this blog are the culinary experiences I’ve been able to have as a byproduct of my work at places like Slanted Door and Gary Danko on the West Coast and notable hotspots like PDT and Spice Market on the East Coast.

photo (33)photo (37)photo (35)Scallops, as interpreted by Slanted Door (left) and Gary Danko (right), and the delightfully colorful tomato salad at Gary Danko

Of note to my co-blogger would also be the two months I spent eating Wawa hoagies. I convinced my team to forgo the cafeteria in favor of the Philly-area favorite because of all that we could learn from their superior business acumen. (The significantly superior sandwiches helped.)

2013 brought the most exotic work destination as of yet, sending me over the Atlantic to Basel, Switzerland. Before I set foot in the country, I knew nothing of Basel other than the legislation that bears its name. (The first time I got there, I joked there should have been a “Basel: Home of Financial Regulation” sign, the way many U.S. towns welcome you with their sports team accolades, but no one else thought I was that funny.)

On my way to Basel, I traveled through Zurich, a city for which I think the best adjective is “sturdy.” The city runs like clockwork — and is punctuated by clocks at every turn — and is incredibly easy to navigate. It sits on the edge of a beautiful lake, and though I didn’t have much time in the city (and was advised there wasn’t much to see), at least walking by the water provided for a pretty view.

By day…

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…and by night.

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Basel, just an hour north from Zurich by train, has aspects of both a quaint European village and an industrial powerhouse. Walking its adorable cobblestone streets, you pass the beautiful old city hall and centuries-old buildings, made even more picturesque when covered in snow.

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On the other hand, a number of companies have corporate headquarters on the border city — Basel deals with the Swiss, Germans and French — and the city is lined with factories and office buildings. Despite its international surroundings, the city is Swiss through and through (or so I’m told). There’s a sense of formality and punctuality to all operations that is hard to find elsewhere, and the cheese selection is phenomenal.

Basel at sunrise

When I first got to Switzerland, we partook in local tradition and ate our fair share of fondue and raclette. Both dishes feature copious amounts of melted cheese, though in slightly different forms. Fondue is the more internationally known, and its incarnations outside of Switzerland are pretty true to original form. Essentially, you get a vat of cheese and a bowl of bread, and you dip.

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Raclette is less of an activity-based meal. At least in the restaurant where we had it, the cheese came to us melted and we ate chunks of the rich goodness with potatoes and pickles.

IMG_3906The naked potatoes

After a week, I needed a break from the Swiss cuisine. To the Swiss, “light” eating does not exist. I tried to order a salad as-is one day and discovered my dressing applied more like pasta sauce — a very generous and creamy coating. So my colleagues and I quickly banned fondue from our dining repertoire and set out in search of Basel’s other offerings.

It took some digging, but we found them, in the form of Asica, an African-Asian fusion restaurant with pretty decent curries, and Aroma, a tiny Italian trattoria, and my favorite, Eo Ipso, a trendy ambiguously European restaurant built inside of an old warehouse.

photo (34)Dinner at Eo Ipso for the girl who can’t decide: fish on top of a ravioli on top of vegetables on top of meat

I also probably consumed my weight in chocolate, but that’s neither here nor there…

One of my favorite things about Basel was its airport. It’s one of the only truly international airports in the world; the structure sits firmly on the border of France and Switzerland (and just a 20-minute drive from Germany, too). When you land at the Basel airport, you have to very carefully choose your exit. Go out the wrong door and you’ll be in another country. The border is much more fluid than it once was, but there are still checkpoints; after all, Switzerland is not in the EU. The two sides of the airport take different currency and pick up different cell signals, and the cab lines are separated by a 15-foot-tall partition. The first time I landed in Basel, I was quite tickled.

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My love for the tiny airport dissipated quickly when I faced a flight cancellation one Saturday morning that stranded me in Basel on my way to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration. I had planned to fly to the capital via Paris and found myself stuck when my flight to France was delayed, delayed, delayed and then finally cancelled. That late in the day, there was no way I could make it to the U.S., and I was nervous to try the whole proceeding again the next day. Fortunately, nothing is really that far away in Europe. So after spending a day in the Basel airport, I formally migrated from Switzerland to France by exiting out a different door from the one I had entered in, took a taxi to Mulhouse and boarded an express train to Paris.

Three hours later, I was looking at the Seine and found myself with a dinner invitation; one of my colleagues had family in France who graciously made us risotto and served us a traditional king cake. I did not find the prize, but was still permitted to wear the crown.

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I woke up on Sunday morning to a Paris blanketed in snow and a notification that my flight was, again, delayed. With an unplanned day in Paris, I decided to head to the one neighborhood I knew would be open (and that I knew I knew how to get to), the Marais. I trudged my way there as the snow continued to fall, pausing to have a café au lait and pain au chocolate to warm up. I easily could have taken the Metro, but it was a beautiful walk despite the cold. One thing I will say about Paris: nowhere else looks as pretty covered in snow.

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With just enough time to have lunch before heading to the airport, I stopped at L’Aus du Falafel, which I would reason has among the best falafel I have ever had. OK, you could argue there are many other culinary delights I could have taken in while in Paris. But this is the one I know, and the one I knew I would enjoy, and enjoy I did.

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Nearly 48 hours after I first arrived at the Basel airport, I finally touched down in Washington. I had sadly missed much of the gathering to which I was headed, though in the grand scheme of things, Paris is not too bad a place to be trapped.

However, I chose not to visit my formerly favorite little airport ever again.

A marathon trip to London

Written by Chaz on 26 November 2012

In early September, my mother and I joined my aunt Jan, uncle Ash and cousin Maggie on a whirlwind trip to England for my second cousin Stuart’s wedding. Though we were only on the other side of the pond for about three days, we managed to see, do and eat quite a bit — and, of course, we attended a lovely wedding.

I arrived early Thursday morning from Boston and met my aunt, uncle and cousin for a winding trip through the English countryside on several buses and trains to the small town of Guildford, our home base for the first few days of our trip. My mother’s flight had hit some snags, putting her arrival a few hours later — hours that I put to good use catching up on sleep.

After we were all arrived, rested and cleaned up a bit, we walked down to Guildford’s high street and met Cathie, my mother’s cousin and mother of the groom, for a light lunch. We were all ravenous, not having eaten since our flights, and I enjoyed a beautiful and tasty sandwich of brie, grapes, walnuts and greens.

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We spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around the town, the highlight of which is the ruins of an old castle. On the castle grounds, we found some exciting rounds of a game called “bowls” taking place. After our exploration, we met the British wing of our family for a great dinner in Guildford and retreated to our hotel.

IMG_7188IMG_7203IMG_7210My aunt Jan, cousin Maggie and I.

Never ones to let an opportunity pass by, my mother and I rose early the next morning and boarded an early train to London to see the Queen’s jewelry, on exhibition in conjunction with her diamond jubilee. This was not the so-called crown jewels, but rather the jewelry the Queen herself actually wears for important events.

Our train into the city was full of British schoolchildren in uniforms. Basically it was the Hogwarts Express. Before long, we had arrived at Victoria Station, just a short walk from the palace.

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The state rooms and the diamond exhibition were stunning. Unfortunately, photography was prohibited, but we saw quite a few huge rocks, including the tiara and necklace the Queen wore in her diamond jubilee portrait. The tour ended with a walk through the palace grounds.

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A short train ride later, we were getting ready for the wedding, which was followed by toasts, dinner and dancing. It was a terrific night with our English family.

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On Saturday, we packed up and returned to London, where we were spending the weekend. After dropping our things at our hotel, we tubed to the Thames’ south bank, where my mother and I explored the Real Food Market at Southbank Centre. We composed our lunch out of several cuisines from the market’s many stands.

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We walked along the river to the Tate Modern, where we saw the Munch exhibit — which, strangely, was almost entirely on loan from the Munch Museum in Oslo, which I had seen three years prior, to the point where I wondered if the museum in Oslo could even still be open. Returning to our hotel, we got in a short rest before leaving London again to join our family for a relaxed dinner in Teddington, home of the newlyweds.

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We rose early again on Sunday to meet my second cousin Elise and her husband Nadson to see the Paralympics marathon. Though the London Olympics had ended before our visit began, the Paralympics were still going on, so we were able to get a taste of the event that had captured the world’s attention a few weeks earlier. The route went right by our hotel in front of Buckingham Palace.

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As we walked back to our hotel across Green Park, we caught the wheelchair heat of the race. The whole event was very inspiring and captured the best of the Olympic spirit.

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Bidding farewell to Elise and Nadson, we picked up our things from our hotel and met Ash, Jan and Maggie at upscale department store Fortnum & Mason‘s Fountain Restaurant for brunch. I enjoyed a delicious pea soup while my mother opted for eggs benedict.

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After brunch, we took a cab to the train and were shortly on the train speeding toward Heathrow. It was a terrific short trip to England, and it was especially wonderful to be able to see our British relatives again — not to mention the sights we fit in between the festivities!

Long days of summer

Written by Chaz on 16 September 2012

IMG_6947After sleeping late yet again, I woke up to another breakfast of a Swedish sandwich and coffee and sat out reading for a bit. Torbjörn and I then set out on bicycles to the nearby town of Bergshamra, where there is a small grocery store, to pick up some food. It was a gorgeous day for a ride, and our route took us through a farm, down to the water to a marina and into town.

I learned at the ICA grocery store in Bergshamra that you can order alcohol that is otherwise only sold at Systembolaget and have it sent to a rural grocery store, so that alcohol is available in places too sparsely populated for a Systembolaget store. I guess that’s more convenient, and it just goes to show the level of dedication to keeping the monopoly and making it workable.

Arriving home, we walked down to the beach for a quick dip in the Baltic under the broad blue sky.

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After swimming, I sat out on the porch and shelled shrimp for dinner before making some more headway in my book. Dinner was pasta with shrimp, salad, and white wine, followed by a dessert of rhubarb pie with vanilla sauce and ice cream, and of course coffee.

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The light was so nice after dinner that we did a quick photo shoot to remember the trip by, and then, still not wanting to go inside, we took a very long walk down to another bay, where the sun’s last rays were especially beautiful.

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We woke relatively early on Sunday and immediately headed for the dock, where an early swim was especially cold and thus very quick. We cleaned up and had a very relaxing breakfast all together on the porch, with smörgåsar with spicy tomato-ginger marmalade, cereal, filmjölk, coffee, and orange juice.

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Anna, Karin and Nils had to return to Stockholm that afternoon, so we made a trip of taking them to the bus in Norrtälje. We walked around town a little bit and looked in at Akeba, a neat furniture and home goods store.

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We had a fika at Tre Praliner, where we had actually eaten three years earlier when my mother visited Sweden. We sat out on the deck with kanelbullar, chokladbollar and coffee.

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IMG_7034After our fika, we drove over to the bus station with more than enough time for their bus to Stockholm, and sure enough, as we walked up to the platform with 15 minutes to spare, the bus was pulling up. But as we chatted and said a long goodbye, the bus pulled away! It turned out that the buses actually leave for Stockholm every 15 minutes, so we had been looking at the bus before theirs. Another bus came along shortly, we repeated our goodbyes, and they were on their way.

Erik, Torbjörn and I drove over to Coop, the grocery store, where we recycled various things into several bins: plastic, metal, paper, colored glass and uncolored glass. A large sign proclaimed that light bulbs could not be recycled there, and believe it or not, we actually did have a light bulb to recycle. The whole thing felt like a scene out of Portlandia, one of our favorite showsthis scene, to be specific.

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After yet another grocery self-scanning experience, we drove back to Lögla, where we had a relaxing afternoon, reading on the porch and taking a long swim at the beach. We began making dinner, for which we had big ambitions.

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Round one of dinner, a salmon vegetable stir-fry with rice, was excellent, and very attractive in the cooking process.

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Round two came a bit later: chorizo with korvbröd, senap (Swedish mustard), ketchup, rostadlök (the Swedish fried onions), grilled halloumi, and beer. It was excellent in a very different way from the stir-fry.

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After dinner, we took one last long walk around Lögla. Throughout the trip, I had been remarking on how much the Stockholm archipelago reminded me of Maine, my favorite place in the world, and how my Swedish family ought to come visit us there. As we looked over the water at the sunset, Torbjörn turned me and said with a knowing smile, “Very Maine, right?”

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The next morning, we woke up very early and set off for Arlanda airport, where I said goodbye to Torbjörn and Erik, pledging that we would see each other again very soon. As I made my way through airport check-in, and security, and into the departure lounge, speaking Swedish at every step, I realized how far my Swedish language skills had come, and how much further even they had developed on my 10-day trip — not just in vocabulary or grammar but also in just feeling comfortable using it. I picked up a Stockholm newspaper in the airport, which appropriately enough contained a story about Providence. I also seized the opportunity to have one last Swedish breakfast.

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My flight took me through Amsterdam, where I saw a Lego model of the Amsterdam airport and enjoyed one of my favorite beers in its homeland.

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Yet another wonderful time in Sweden. The next one can’t come soon enough.

Exploring the countryside

Written by Chaz on 23 August 2012

We rose relatively earlier on my first day back in Lögla, having planned to make a trip to Linnés Hammarby, a botanical garden that was once the summer home of Carl Linneaus. Linneaus is the mastermind behind the modern system of categorizing plants and animals. It was another beautiful day in the Swedish countryside, and I felt a bit like the family in “Little Miss Sunshine” as the wide-open sunny landscape rolled by outside.

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We arrived at Linnés Hammarby and signed up for a tour of his house before walking around a bit on the grounds. There was a vegetable garden and a pasture of horses and sheep. Interestingly, the symbol shown on the sign below, also engraved on the command key of millions of Macintosh keyboards, originated in Sweden. The command key originally featured only the Apple logo, but Steve Jobs felt that was an overuse of the company’s logo. Its replacement is a Scandinavian symbol for a tourist attraction, and Apple designer Susan Kare found it in a symbol dictionary and decided to adopt it. The symbol thus took on a life of its own.

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We returned to Linneaus’ house, where we were led through its rooms by a very well-intentioned tour guide whose English left something to be desired. I think I could have understood her better had she spoken Swedish. After our tour into the Sweden of a few hundred years ago, we were ready, of course, for a fika. We returned to the cafe at the garden’s entrance, and were soon enjoying a platter of sweets: a chokladboll, or chocolate ball; a monster-sized kanelbulle that reminded all present of Cafe Saturnus; carrot cake; and a nut tart. And coffee all around.

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After our tasty stop, we took a walk through Linneaus’ own garden, filled with the many flowers that he so carefully categorized. The grounds were beautiful, and Anna suggested making a visit an annual tradition.

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Leaving the garden, we drove to the nearby city of Uppsala, home of Sweden’s oldest university, founded in 1477 and considered one of the best in Europe. Even though we had just had a fika, we beelined to Ofvandahls konditori for lunch. In spite of their extremely tempting pastry case, we all ordered baguette sandwiches — a few of salami and Brie and others of ham and cheese — and of course more coffee.

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We took a stroll through old Uppsala, and a guy from Denver picked me out of our group to ask me directions, hesitatingly asking me if I spoke English. I guess my cover was blown. It was especially amusing since he could have just asked any Swede, all of whom speak English nearly as well as I do.

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We walked up to the university library and stopped in at the exhibit of the Silver Bible, Sweden’s most valuable book and one of the best remaining examples of the ancient Gothic language. As we entered the exhibit, I realized it actually wasn’t my first time there. I had visited with my mother during my first visit to Sweden.

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After visiting the library, we returned to the car and set off in the direction of the archipelago, stopping along the way for groceries. We had a simple but wonderful dinner of korvar, the Swedish hot dogs, complete with fresh onions, peppers, roasted onions (very popular on korvar) and the delicious Swedish strong mustard. Though it wasn’t fancy, the meal was great, and at this point in the trip, the simple pleasure of another meal outside under the evening sun with my family was perfect.

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Nils, who had stayed behind in Stockholm to work, arrived after dinner on a bus, and we had a delicious strawberry cake (and coffee) once he got there. We sat around talking for a while over dessert, nearly entirely in Swedish.

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Anna had discovered that the only rebroadcast on Swedish public television of the Allsång performance we had attended was at 2:45 in the morning, so in order to see whether we had actually been shown on the broadcast, we dutifully stayed up to watch. We passed the time by playing cards — I tried to teach spades, but didn’t get very far — until the film “Little Children” came on SVT. After half-heartedly following the extremely creepy film, the Allsång broadcast finally began, and thanks to the fairly distinctive pattern of the shirt I had worn, I spotted myself not once but three times. (You can see the episode for yourself on SVT’s website.)

Tired beyond words but delighted to have become a Swedish television star, I headed off to bed shortly afterwards.

Back to nature

Written by Chaz on 22 August 2012

The following day, with four full days remaining to my time in Sweden, Karin, Erik and I rose early and took the pendeltåg to the tunnelbana to the Roslagsbanan to a bus. In no time flat, we were back in Lögla at my family’s summer house. And after quickly packing up a picnic, we hopped in the boat and sped over to the national park of Ängsö, which we had also visited the previous year.

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We had lunch shortly after we arrived: delicious, light sandwiches of ham, potatoes and Dijon mustard in tortillas, along with kanelbullar and coffee. We sat out in the lovely sun, took a quick swim in the frigid water and spent a while just relaxing. I was in the middle of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and was completely enthralled (we joked that he should be Swedish with a name like that), and the shore of the national park was the perfect place to read.

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After a while, we took a long walk around the island of Ängsö, spotting the cows for which the park is known. The island had been farmed for many years before it became a national park, at which it became entirely protected. But it soon became overgrown, and authorities realized that the farming was actually necessary to create the beauty the park had been designed to protect.

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After a bit more reading and another kanelbulle, it was time for the short boat ride back to the mainland.

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The grill was fired up shortly after we got home, and before long, the table was set and yet another fantastic meal was ready. There’s something about eating dinner under the incredible evening sun that makes it that much tastier. We had steak, halloumi cheese (very popular in Sweden, and really yummy), tzatziki sauce, potatoes and a salad.

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For dessert, we had a freshly-baked rhubarb pie — naturally, accompanied by coffee. After making a bit more progress on The Devil in the White City, it was time for bed.

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Open-air entertainment

Written by Chaz on 21 August 2012

The next morning, we met some of Erik’s friends at the natural history museum near Stockholm University, where I studied during my first visit to Sweden. We spent a few hours exploring the museum and had the “day’s menu” lunch in its cafeteria. Having had enough of the museum, we took the subway back downtown to Östermalmstorg, known for its food hall, which I also visited during my last stay in Stockholm. Erik and I stopped for a fika there.

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We walked from the food hall to the spårvagn, a trolley that connects downtown Stockholm to Djurgården, the lush island that holds the open-air museum of Skansen. As we had done a year before, we were planning to attend the evening’s broadcast of “Allsång på Skansen,” a nationally televised singalong, held on eight Tuesdays in the summer and hosted for a second year by Måns Zelmerlöw, who got famous after he was on the Swedish version of American Idol. The show, which features a mixture of traditional Swedish songs and more modern songs performed by each week’s guests, is a perfect example of something that’s culturally ubiquitous in Sweden but absolutely unknown elsewhere — in other words, world-famous in Sweden. I was especially excited to see the show again because among the guests were Markus Krunegård, one of the artists I’ve gotten to know from listening to Swedish radio at my desk — part of my strategy to keep my Swedish up; the Original Band, an ABBA tribute featuring members of the original backup band; and Miss Li, another Swedish artist.

Our trip on the spårvagn took us past the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, which was hosting a stage performance version of Ingmar Bergman’s famous “Fanny and Alexander.”

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After we bought admission tickets to Stockholm, Erik and I had a bit of time before the broadcast’s rehearsal, so we walked around the museum a bit. The museum is a combination of traditional Swedish architecture and a zoo of Nordic animals.

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The Nordic animals were much more present than on any of my previous visits to Skansen, and we saw reindeer, brown bears, red foxes, lynx, and buffalo.

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Heading back to the Skansen stage, we met Karin, a friend of Erik’s from high school, and a few Japanese exchange students, and found a place to watch the Allsång rehearsal.

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We got a few korvar, Swedish hot dogs which are vastly superior to their American counterparts, for dinner after the rehearsal, and hurried back to claim our spot. The show was fantastic, and we had a great view of the action. By this point in my visit, I had already figured out with delight that my Swedish was much, much better than it had been a year prior, so it was fun to be able to follow along with the show much more.

IMG_6627Above, Måns Zelmerlöw, the show’s host. Below, the Original Band perform “Dancing Queen.”
IMG_6642IMG_6638Above: Miss Li, and the crowd at Skansen. Below: A celebration of fifty years of the Svensktoppen list of hit music, and Markus Krunegård.

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We retired from a great evening at Skansen to a pub downtown for a few drinks before heading home. After sleeping late again the next day, we were re-energized and headed back downtown for my last full day in Stockholm. I spent a bit exploring some of the stores in the central shopping district, including the trendy new Weekday.

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Erik and I had an early dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant near Odenplan called Tang Long Pho that, despite being written up in the newspaper, was just mediocre. We took the tunnelbana down to Zinkensdamm, on Södermalm, and walked up to Skinnarviksberget, a rock outcropping that overlooks the lake Mälaren over to Kungsholmen and Gamla Stan. Erik’s friend Koppen met us again and we watched the sun set. Even though the weather wasn’t great, we were far from the only people who wanted to enjoy the view of the city.

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We retreated shortly after sunset to Koppen’s and not long thereafter to Spånga. Stockholm had once again been very good to me.

Sun and water

Written by Chaz on 19 August 2012

The next morning, after sleeping very late again, Erik and I made our way back to the pendeltåg and rode it downtown, where we found a beautiful city bathed in fine weather.

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We walked down toward Kungsträdgården and spent a few minutes exploring NK, an enormous department store where we met up with Erik’s friend Patrik and walked across Gamla Stan to Södermalm. We turned left along Katarinavägen and watched the many enormous ferries down below. It was a truly beautiful day, and the view across the water was stunning.

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Meeting Koppen, another of Erik’s friends, we walked down a long staircase to Stockholm’s photography museum, which sits on the water’s edge. We ordered beers from the museum’s adorable cafe, outside overlooking the sea. Sitting on the shore, overlooking the city and sipping pale ale was one of the most memorable moments of my trip.

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We parted ways with Koppen and Patrik and took the tunnelbana back downtown, where we walked up to Hötorget to have dinner at a Scandinavian restaurant called Pyttirian in the Kungshallen food hall. I ordered pytt i panna, a traditional Swedish dish whose name means “little pieces in a pan.” It could have passed as a breakfast dish in America, though it was heartier and more savory: a hash of diced meat, onions and potatoes, with a fried egg, cucumber and pickled beets. Erik opted for a smörrebröd, a traditional Danish open-faced sandwich, of Brie cheese, bacon and sundried tomato. Both were very good, and different from other things I’ve had. Even though I spent four months in Sweden, I didn’t do a very good job of exploring the local cuisine.

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We had planned to meet up with Patrik again after dinner to sit outside and enjoy the Swedish evening sun with a few beers. In order to do that, we needed to get a few beers. And, of course, there’s only one store in Sweden that sells normal-strength beer: the state-run alcohol monopoly Systembolaget. And when you’re trying to buy alcohol at a reasonable after-dinner hour, nearly every Systembolaget has already closed its doors. Every evening, the Systembolaget across from the train station in central Stockholm, which has slightly longer hours than most, becomes one of the few stores in the entire country that will sell you alcohol. And very likely, you aren’t the only Swede who would like something to drink.

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Not only was there a long line both inside and outside the Systembolaget, but the scene inside was one of the most unruly and chaotic I have ever seen in Sweden. Apparently the bunch of Swedes who shop for booze at the very last minute in the last place in the country selling it are not among Sweden’s most rule-following. We selected a few beers, waited in the long line to pay and made our way out just before closing time.

We met Patrik again and walked over to Skeppsholmen, a small island in central Stockholm that has a bunch of green space and the city’s modern art museum. The island is one of my favorite places in Stockholm for its views from every side, and we picked a nice patch of grass to sit and enjoy the sun. We stayed until nearly eleven, when the light finally began to fade.

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Erik and I returned to Spånga shortly thereafter and again enjoyed a long night’s sleep.

Sweden once again

Written by Chaz on 9 August 2012

Nearly three years ago, I was leaving to spend a semester studying abroad in Stockholm. It was awesome. And so about a year ago, I was again leaving for Stockholm to spend a week with my contact family and reacquaint myself with the country I missed so much. I returned from that trip with renewed affection for the place. So it was only logical that, when it came time to plan my first real vacation from work, I decided to return to Stockholm. This time I wasn’t as curious to see whether it would be as wonderful as I remembered it in my head — I was pretty sure it would be — so I was just looking forward to relaxing, seeing my family, enjoying the sun and having time off away from work.

I arrived at the Stockholm airport early on a Saturday morning after an easy flight from Boston through Amsterdam, where immigration and security couldn’t have been more efficient. My Swedish family picked me up and before long we were on the way to their summer house in Lögla. We made a quick stop along the way in Rimbo to pick up some groceries, and after a little breakfast at home during which I remembered how delicious Swedish cheese is, we took a walk by the shore.

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Though I knew I shouldn’t for jet lag’s sake, I was dying to take a nap, so I closed my eyes for a bit. When I woke up, a major blueberry pie operation was underway, so I jumped in to help pick the stems off a ton of freshly picked berries.

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Shortly afterward we sat down to a delicious dinner of salmon, potatoes, and salad, followed up by the blueberry pie, fresh from the oven. Over dessert, we discussed the difference between kanelbullar, the famous Swedish cinnamon rolls, and other kinds of pastry bollar. Boll, which is the word used for such treats as chokladbollar (chocolate balls), translates to ball, but bulle, the root of kanelbulle, doesn’t really have a direct translation. And the large sugar that goes on kanelbullar, known as “pearl sugar” in Swedish, is barely known in America. This led to Nils imitating a Swede trying to buy pearl sugar with half-English in an American grocery store: “I am a foreigner and I need sugar for my balls!”

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After dinner, we took a walk down to the dock to enjoy the late Swedish sun.

IMG_6276IMG_6277IMG_6279Left to right: Torbjörn, Nils, Karin, Anna and Erik.

When we got home, it was time for “Grattis kronprinsessan!“, literally “Congratulations, crown princess!”, a television show that airs every July 14 to celebrate the birthday of Victoria, the crown princess and next queen of Sweden. The show featured performances from several well-known Swedish musicians and raised money for the princess’ fund, which benefits sick children. It was, to say the least, incredibly Swedish.

IMG_0013By the end of the show, I was already falling asleep again, and even though I was in bed by 10, I slept until nearly one the next day. Clearly I was not only jet-lagged but also a bit behind on sleep. After a light breakfast and an afternoon relaxing and reading, we had a dinner of herring and gravlax and packed up to drive into Spånga, outside Stockholm. We stopped along the way to pick up some groceries at Coop, which was an exceptionally Swedish experience. We loaded specially made baskets onto a specially made double-decker cart and proceeded to scan each item we chose with a handheld scanner that automatically totaled our purchase at the register.

Arriving home, Erik, Karin and I walked to the pendeltåg, the commuter rail, to head downtown and walk around a bit, since we still had a few hours of light. We alighted at Karlberg station and walked down to the path along Karlbergskanalen, strolling down towards Stadshuset, the city hall where the Nobel banquet is held.

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Turning east, we continued onto past the Swedish parliament onto the island of Gamla Stan, up to the picturesque Stortorget at its center.

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Walking down through Slussen, we headed up to Monteliusvägen, a walking path that has incredible views across Lake Mälaren to Gamla Stan, Kungsholmen and Norrmalm. The city looked radiant in the late evening sun.

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We returned to Spånga via a pendeltåg station on Södermalm that I never knew existed, after a very warm welcome back to Stockholm.

A different Thanksgiving flavor

Written by Emmy on 8 January 2012

Thanksgiving is firmly an American holiday. No one else celebrates it and to all other nations, it’s just a random Thursday in November. So then you might wonder how the Liss family wound up in the international terminal of JFK the night before Thanksgiving. Well, along with turkey and parades, the other important feature of Thanksgiving is family. And since the Liss family was split across two continents this fall, we decided to meet somewhere in the middle. The Pilgrims escaped England and came to Plymouth Rock; we opted to go back.

Given that we were going to London, I did not anticipate the traditional feast of stuffing and cranberry sauce. Everyone at work joked that I would be having fish and chips for Thanksgiving dinner. But when going to London, I would not put British food at the tip-top of my eating to-do list. Sure, shepherd’s pie and bangers and mash may have their moments (not necessarily moments I would opt to take part in), but the real appeal of London eating is the ubiquitous presence of ethnic food from all corners of the globe.

From the moment we landed, that could not have been more apparent. One of our first stops on Thursday morning was Borough Market, where restaurants and chefs from all over the city had set up stalls and were preparing gourmet offerings of all varieties. After sampling several different curries, I selected a Vietnamese spicy chicken dish for lunch. The widespread offerings appeased the various spice thresholds of all members of my family. While I was sweating through my curry, my mom enjoyed a veggie frittata.

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Another Liss had a duck sandwich and we all sampled our fair share of baked goods and cheeses.

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IMG_7539We did plenty of sightseeing and museum-going on our trip to London, but given what blog I’m writing this recap on, I’m really just going to jump from meal to meal. (Which is essentially how we conducted our vacation anyway.)

Our meals really varied in terms of their country of origin. I don’t think two of them overlapped. For Thanksgiving dinner we checked out Gwyneth Paltrow’s favorite French restaurant. She was not there, but her cookbook was very much on display. It was not a venue made for taking food photos, but suffice it to say that we had a very delicious and very atypical dinner for the third Thursday in November.

On Friday, the fact that we were all mentally in different time zones and in different physical states of exhaustion meant that some of us ate breakfast at 10 am, some of us ate brunch at noon and then we required lunch and afternoon snacks at varying times. It wasn’t the most coordinated or recorded day in eating history, but we managed to tuck in a few good items and explore a few fun London neighborhoods along the way.

At dinnertime we headed to a collection of streets known as Shepherd Market, which are lined with ethnic restaurants from around the globe. We passed Irish, Italian, a Polish-Mexican bistro and several other unexpected nationalities. We settled on Turkish, always a big hit with the Liss family.

This summer exposed me to depths of Southeast Asian cuisine that I never could have imagined and it is definitely one of my favorites, but the only type of food that potentially beats it in my mind is that from the Mediterranean. I love the fresh salads, the mezzes, the heavy use of eggplant and the presence of spices found in few other places than the Mediterranean coasts and the Middle East.

IMG_7550My love for mezze is shared by the entire Liss family and so we went a little aggressive on our appetizers. We started with hummus, which was served with a thick baked bread (as opposed to the pita we typically see in Turkish restaurants in the U.S.); a shepherd’s salad (greek salad sans lettuce); falafel; eggplant roasted with tomatoes; and babaganoush, eggplant dip served with pomegranate seeds. I love babaganoush and on occasion it falls a little flat. This rendition did not disappoint.

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We had ordered full main courses too (isn’t Thanksgiving supposed to be about gluttony?) and I was quite excited about mine. Not surprisingly, I had ordered the item red-flagged as spicy: the chicken meatball pot. My meatballs, which had first been grilled to fiery perfection, were served in a spicy broth alongside several roasted vegetables. The entire dish was delivered to me with a side of rice to serve as a much-needed buffer. All in all, delicious.

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Despite the disclaimer above, you still might be perplexed as to why this post about London features no pictures of the London Bridge or mentions of the changing of the palace guard and only discusses food. Well, actually, you read this blog. So maybe not. But in actuality, the Liss family has been to London before and we have done the famous museums and sights. On this trip, we really tried to take a different approach — one of exploring more untouched neighborhoods and places — and that just happens to coincide well with the general theme of the checkpoint.

On Saturday, we strolled around one of the city’s more hipster neighborhoods and wandered into a department store filled with oddities and funny art installations. Familial hilarity ensued.

IMG_7613Three-fifths of the Liss fam amuse themselves in front of a series of mirror-plated walls.

On the top floor of the department store is an adorable restaurant — adorable both because it is impossibly tiny, with all patrons crowded against one wall at skinny tables, and adorable because of the beautiful fresh foods bountifully on display. Most of the dishes are organic and veggie-heavy and provide a somewhat updated twist on classic British techniques, like stuffing your food into pie form.

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After waiting a while, we squeezed into a table in the back. (We had been ready to give up and try for something else, but a local native who now lives in New York told us that this was his favorite lunch place in the whole city and the spot he always returns to when he comes back to visit.) I tried one of the veggie pies, filled with cauliflower and cheese, and it was delightful.

In my experience, Christmas decorations start springing up in New York right after Thanksgiving. Since Thanksgiving isn’t officially celebrated in London, the holiday season appeared to already be fully in bloom. All of the avenues were lined with beautiful lights and twinkling snowflakes and a Christmas festival had completely taken over one of the major parks. Between meals, we managed to observe some of the local festivity.

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On Saturday night we partook in a little Chinese food, flinging our palettes further around the globe. Chinese food in London is really quite similar to Chinese food in New York, though both are quite different from the native version we saw in Hong Kong. It’s funny how that works.

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Our quick trip to the old continent ended Sunday afternoon in order to get everyone back in place for school and work on Monday. So on Sunday morning we got up early to make the most of the day.

We headed to the Columbia Road flower market, in a neighborhood of East London outside the central city that none of us had been to before. The main avenue of this up-and-coming neighborhood was lined in flowers for purchase. Locals picked up Christmas wreaths, red roses and — my favorite — big, bright sunflowers. Tucked into a back alley we found a local flea market, coffee shop and neighborhood musicians. As tourists, we were definitely in the minority. Most people appeared to be locals partaking in a weekly tradition.

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From the flower market we wandered into other uncharted territories, determined to seek out one final epicurean adventure before departing. We found ourselves in food hall that reminded me almost of the giant food halls we visited in Bangkok. Vendor after vendor was crammed into the covered space, each hawking their products and offering samples. Communal picnic tables could be found in the back for diners of all establishments to use. The only major difference was that in Bangkok, all the vendors were proffering the exact same foods — pad thai, basil chicken and other wok creations. The diversity here in London was a bit wider…

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Chalk it up to the deja vu I was feeling for the Siamese capital, but I made a beeline for the stall titled “Thai Delicious” and made friends with the Thai transplant chef and her British husband. I sampled their wares before going with the green chicken curry, served atop a bed of noodles and accompanied by a do-it-yourself toppings bar. I was quite pleased as I recognized the little peppers Big Mama taught us to add to our sauces for a very particular hint of spice.

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From the market we headed almost directly to Heathrow, ending our whirlwind of a long weekend in London. It may not have been the traditional Thanksgiving, but the five of us were all together, which is in essence the important part of the holiday. So this year it was over French fish and Chinese noodles, but we can always have turkey next year. And as a small token of the tradition we were commemorating by all being together on a random Thursday in November, we did have pecan pie.

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