Friday, July 24, 2009

Viennese Cuisine - Third Culture Kid Style

OK - so there Erin and I were - surrounded by the fine culture, class and cuisine of Vienna. Erin's mom (still my favorite mother-in-law) bravely volunteered to corral the kids for a weekend, and we had jumped on just about the first train out of town. So... like I said, there we were, standing in the U-Bahn station, heading to our hotel, when I saw it. Beckoning at me from the other side of the tracks. My camera was, of course, stuck in the very bottom of my bag. "Erin!" I yelled. "Get your camera - QUICK! Take a picture of THAT SIGN!" Being a mom who rarely has more than one hand free at a time, Erin's camera is small, svelte, easy to pocket and unpocket... and burgundy to boot. She sprung into action and grabbed this shot:

Now to someone who hasn't grown up in Sri Lanka - the sign on the left may not mean a whole lot. An ethnically dressed character posing next to a sign for... grasshoppers? Not quite, my friend! Ask any Rubesh (of the Don Rubesh lineage) about hoppers, and you'll get the salivation of a Pavlovian dog at a handbell choir recital. Hoppers are like... Guiness to an Irishman... Steak to a Texan... fine wine to a Parisian... Schnitzel to a Viennese.

Picture (and address) firmly on memory card, our first stop in Vienna, after checking into our hotel just outside the Schönbrunn Palace was Colombo Hoppers. Eager to dust off my rusty Sinhala, I eschewed the German menu and ordered off the cuff in the majority language of Sri Lanka to our waiter - who clearly had no idea what in the world I was saying.

Fortunately, our host and the owner of Colombo Hoppers seemed happy enough to trade German for my oddly accented Sinhala, and we soon settled on a good variety of string hoppers, curries and fruity drinks, all the while serenaded by Sri Lankan baila on the stereo and the whine of mosquitoes (imported from the Replendant Isle, I'm sure)

Looking for Viennese Cuisine with a kick? Look no farther than Colombo Hoppers - as the sign in the metro says, its just down the road from the Pilgamgrasse U-Bahn station on the U4 line.

Not to be outdone, the very next day, we hopped off a perfectly good (and dry) streetcar and into the pouring rain when Erin spotted her equivilant of Sri Lankan cuisine - Restaurant Beirut. We were the first ones in the door for lunch, and the tabbouleh was fresh off the cutting block and delicious. Our waiter/chef did not look very Lebanese, and we soon discovered that yes, we were actually speaking in Arabic to an Indian who cooked Lebanese food in Austria, and whose first language was English. Go figure!

One thing to keep in mind while dining in Vienna - don't forget a well-stocked wallet. Classy eats like these don't come cheap... and apparently, between cutting up parsley and frying falafal, they haven't had time to fix the credit card machine at Restaurant Beirut.

If you're looking for a quick warm up after all this traipsing around town to find decent eats, look no farther than one of Vienna's famous cafes. One like Daniel Moser, on Rotenturmstraße, for example. It has the best coffee in town (really, their awning says so)... and, they've been serving it since 1685 (really, their saucers say so). Actually - it was good coffee... very good coffee!

We did actually find traditional Viennese cuisine on our last night in town - it must have been authentic - we could actually hear the chef pounding the schnitzel through the kitchen door.

Between all this fine eating and drinking, we did actually get to see some of Vienna. Here I thought that Prague had some impressive Palaces and gardens. After wandering through the Hapsburg's summer retreat at Schönbrunn Palace, and the other palaces, large and larger that litter the city, Prague's best all seem rather... quaint and provincial... .

The best way to get around town? The U-Bahn's not bad, but you really can't see much. A much more "in touch" way to tour the city is from the seat of a Vienna Citybike. Here's the idea - walk up to a kiosk, insert your credit card as a deposit, and unlock a bike that's FREE to ride for an hour. Lock it up at another one of the 60 or more stations scattered around the city, and then return to check it out for another free hour of riding. Exceed your free hour? You'll be charged all of one Euro for the next hour. The bikes even work in the rain (we tested them to make sure!)

Bike are fine for getting around Vienna - but for the trip back to Prague, Czech Railway's Pendalino high-speed trains are the ticket! Smooth, quiet, fast and fully air conditioned, these things are like flying - but at ground level. Four hours after pulling out of Vienna's Sudbahnhof, we were back at the decrepit, filthy Hlavni Nadrazi main train station in Prague (don't worry, they're renovating it).

Buy your tickets online and speed off to Vienna - for a weekend of excellent cuisine, multilingual conversations, impressive palaces and free biking!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Birthday Dollars

Ever since I can remember, my brothers and I each got a very special birthday card each year. Inside, in addition to cute pictures, birthday wishes, and occasionally a stick of chewing gum, there was always a single dollar bill. Growing up in Sri Lanka, we treated these dollars like pure gold - hoarding them in our secret hidey holes, counting them up, and waiting eagerly until the day when we would be in America and could spend our treasure! Grandpa and Grandma Miller (mom's parents) never forgot a birthday - and never forgot a birthday dollar - no matter how many thousands of miles away we were!

Now that we're all grown up and parents of our own kids, we don't get birthday dollars anymore. But sure enough - just like clockwork, Kyler's second birthday card appeared in the mail from Oregon. This time, it flew all the way across the US to a military mail dispatch center in New York. From there, it hopped a plane across the Atlantic to Prague, and from our Embassy mailroom into my backback for the run home. Kyler opened up his card, and out fluttered a single dollar bill. He's not sure quite what to make of it yet... but I'm sure he'll soon join his brother and sister in carefully stashing his birthday dollars away at the bottom of his piggy bank.

When Grandpa and Grandma got married and Grandpa started work as a pastor, he was just as likely to get his salary paid in a tithe of eggs or chickens as in greenbacks. They raised a family of five kids and sent them out into the world to start their own families... but their jobs didn't end there.

In college, Grandpa and Grandma's house in the tiny town of Creswell, Oregon was my haven - a place to unload the stress of the week, get my laundry done (by Grandma) and fall asleep in the lazyboy, belly filled with a homecooked Sunday lunch of Pot Roast followed by a bowl of ice cream, a couple of peaches, and an oatmeal cookie. Their house just outside of Eugene always had a neat smell to it. A smell of home during a time when this third-culture-kid was busy trying to figure out where in the world "home" was. We'd work our way through Grandma's archive of photo albums - documenting our family history on pages of 3x5 prints behind cellophane sheet protectors. Play a game or two of dominos. Watch Pat Sajak or Alex Trebek on the TV set. And then, laundry done, I'd head back to another week of college life.

With the birthday card last week came Grandpa and Grandma's loving touch from many miles and three generations away. They're older now - Grandpa's Alzheimer's has really taken a toll in the last year. Grandma's arthritis makes it harder each year to write the greetings on the birthday cards.

But their calendar is marked with the birthdays of all their kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, stamps and cards are bought, and many times each year, a dollar bill wings its way across the globe to find great-grandkids just starting out life's journey. And though Kyler's too young to understand it now, someday I'll sit him down on my lap and tell him about his dollar bill. How it can smell like a Sunday roast right out of the oven, a scoop of vanila ice cream with a fresh-baked cookie on the side... and a lot of love from many miles away.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A little slice of Holland

With "Tayta and Jiddo" (Erin's parents) in Prague for a visit, we drove to Holland this weekend. OK - not really to Holland, but it kind of felt like it! The Eastern end of Lipno Lake, along the Czech-Austrian border was "discovered" by Dutch developers several years ago, and a bustling little resort town - including a marina, a golf course and a ski area - has sprung up out of nowhere. Today, just about all the signs appear in three languages - Dutch, German and Czech, and every other license plate is from Holland.

We were looking for a family friendly hotel within easy striking distance of Český Krumlov, and stumbled across the Lipno Lake Resort via the Internet. A couple emails later, the van was packed, kids' bikes loaded on the back, and we were on our way. Minus potty stops and a lunch break, we rolled into the the resort reception in Lipno nad Vlatavou just about three and a half hours after we left Prague. A signpost pointed out the number of kilometers to Prague... and to Amsterdam!

The resort was all the website (in Dutch, German, Czech, and poorly translated English) billed it to be. We picked up our keys from the friendly Dutch park managers, plunked down a wad of Czech cash, and found our home for the weekend - and it was nice.

Our "LLR8S" apartment featured three bedrooms spread over two floors, a spacious dining room, kitchen and living room, balconies overlooking the lake, and a sauna! Cool! The kids wasted no time staking out their beds and testing the sauna.

We've tried out quite a few apartment-type hotels around Germany and the Czech Republic in the last few years, and this one was by far the nicest. The pool ("heated"), playground and trampoline right outside the apartment didn't hurt! What makes this place really nice though is the location - wedged between Lipno Lake on one side and a ski resort on the other. In the summer, mountain bikes take the place of skiis on the lift, a ropes course is in full swing, people are zipping down the bobsled run, and the evenings echo to the sound of live music.

Lipno Lake is a great place to bring your bikes - even if you're not planning on riding down the ski slope, bike and inline skating trails run along the lake, and crisscross throughout the forested hills. Don't have room to pack them? Pick up a rental by the hour, day or week at any one of a number of rental spots - including one featuring the latest downhill bikes at the foot of the ski slope!

Lipno Lake Resort's "sister property" the Lipno Lake Marina across the road features the "Aquaworld" mini indoor water park. If you're staying at the resort, keep your receipt and present it at reception for a full refund. The lake was still a bit cold this July weekend... but the strip of sand just beside the Marina made for Kyler's first beach experience and was fun anyway (Kyler doesn't look convinced in this picture!)

Lipno a great home base to use for all variety of day trips - including our trip to Český Krumlov - one of the Czech Republic's most beautiful "Castle Towns". A day's just about enough time to tour this town - and explore the country's second-largest castle complex (after Prague Castle).

Our only regret? At just three days, this stay in beautiful Southern Bohemia was just a bit too short!