Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A New Start

It's been almost two and a half years since I've come anywhere near this blog-except to pull up recipes occasionally. I'm not sure why, but there's some shame associated with this fact, like I have neglected a close friend. For years this blog was my constant companion and ideas for new posts would come to me frequently. My sister and I took an epic trip to Finland and Lithuania in the summer of 2013 and toward the end of the trip I stopped blogging thinking I would finish writing about the vacation upon returning home. I came home the last week of June to more travel for a wedding, then Germany and South Korea for work and then the finality of a divorce. In many ways it stopped me in my tracks. I locked in that winter as I tend to do, but I kinda' forgot to check back in. Probably on purpose. 
So here I am now, about to embark on a wonderful new adventure and knowing this blog will be a big part of the journey.  So please stay tuned-check in every now and then-I am thrilled and terrified both and I could use the company!
Here's a pic from about six weeks ago. My crazy daughter Marta convinced her parents to go skydiving with her! It was exhilarating and wildly scary, but I am so glad I did it!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Riga, Latvia

After a day in Riga (sometimes called the Paris of the Baltics), Doreen and I see similarities between Klaipeda (where we visited the Curonian Spit) and Riga. They are both tourists towns and wealthier than Vilnius. But they feel colder and more sterile. Residents seem aloof and bored, like it is all they can do to deal with the very folks who create their livelihood. Vilnius, on the other hand was warm and welcoming. I felt bereft leaving Vilnius,  like I was being forced to vacate a home that was never really mine to begin with. Vilnius captured my imagination...I saw myself living there; baking at a local bakery or providing picnic baskets for the ballooning  companies. Maybe living on the outskirts of the city in an old farmhouse (there are plenty) tending my garden and my chickens, maybe having a cow or a couple goats. A life that would be a small slice of the life I've made for myself in the states. In Vilnius, we walked everywhere, never taking public transportation as we did other places, but confining ourselves to maybe a 25 block area around our apartment. We came to know it pretty well and would go out some days with a mission in mind-a stop at our favorite bakery for coffee and pastries or a visit to a thrift store we had peered in the windows of after hours- and other days simply to wander down back alleyways we hadn't explored before. Everyday, after coffee and toast in the apartment, we would head out, unencumbered by chores that would occupy us were we home. Home in Texas being the middle of nowhere, I walk only for walkings sake or the occasional hike to the mailbox, because anywhere I walk I will still be in the middle of the woods, yet this choice is mine and I don't regret it. 
We have a week left on this trip and for the first time (gasp!) I find myself thinking of home. We have a new baby duck that our mama Pekin hatched out which I look forward to seeing and I have menus to work on for a group coming to the ranch just a few days after I get home. There is more travel for work in the Fall that I can't bear to think about now and a wedding outside Chicago the end of August for which I am supplying the cake...the logistics of it confounds me so I have chosen to not make plans until I am forced to. 
This vacation has been a reconnecting with Doreen for which I am so grateful as she has been an excellent travel companion. It's also been revelatory in ways that this 55 year old woman on the brink of major life changes could never have expected but welcomed all the same. I am going home excited about life and ready to embrace whatever comes my way. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


So it IS the iPad that is keeping me from posting the way I usually post. I can write paragraph after paragraph of commentary, but putting pictures up brings the process to a stop. Oh well...I guess the words go here and the pics on Facebook. 

After 2 days in Tallinn we were ready to head to Vilnius. Tallinn, being a port city, is BUSY with a massive amount of alcohol consumption and the subsequent craziness that accompanies that. We took an early morning taxi to the bus station and caught our "luxury bus", which for the most part, was pretty luxurious. Wifi in the entire bus; free coffee, espresso, cappuccino, lattes; news on a screen up front and big windows to watch the Baltic scenery go by. It was a great ride traveling through mostly country roads with one stop in Riga, Latvia (which helped us decide to spend 2 days there on our way back to Finland). When we reached the Lithuania border, we passed an old Soviet era checkpoint. Even empty and lifeless, it seemed ominous. And then Lithuania opened up before our eyes. Small villages and farms, beautiful expanses of rich green fields, wild flowers everywhere. We saw countless stork nests, huge-some more than 3 feet across-balanced precariously on top of electric poles and in the branches of dead trees. We watched a red fox saunter across a grassy hill. We saw an old woman wearing a bubushka with a large stick in her hand guarding her sheep herd, old farmers walking behind a plow and others burning brush. It was an exciting ride to say the least...we were home! 
We got off the bus in Vilnius center and stood outside the bus station, map in hand, knowing our room was 5 minutes from the station, but having no idea which direction. Two women walked out of the bus station, spied us and walked over. "Do you know where you're going?" They asked. "Stepono Apartments" I replied and she said they were going there, too so we walked together. The mother and daughter duo were from Atlanta and were looking for traces of their ancestors also. 
Our apartment here is lovely, spacious with a full kitchen and a washing machine in the bathroom. It is centrally located, 5 minutes from the bus and train stations, Old Town and more thrift stores than I've ever seen in my life. We love it here so much that, after a 3 day trip to the beach (and the Curonian Spit-a UNESCO World Heritage Site) we are coming back for two days before we make our way slowly back up to Tallinn to catch the ferry back to Finland. I found some genealogy sites here in Vilnius where we can talk to actual people who will help us with our search. 
I have finally opened up my empty bag which I've kept folded up and tucked into my suitcase. Linen and amber shopping warranted the need for extra luggage. Oh, and thrift store finds!
More from the beach!!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Tallinn, Estonia and Vilnius, Lithuania

The ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia was huge and very crowded. It not only carried hundreds of passengers, but also cars and even a few semis!! There was a lot of drinking aboard and some of the passengers got extremely rowdy! The trip took a bit less than 2 hours and by the time we docked in Tallinn it got rowdier still. Some folks needed help getting off the ship...

The scene at the port was pure chaos, with everyone trying to leave at the same time. Taxis, buses and passenger cars 4 and 5 abreast trying to merge into 3 lanes to head into the city. Doreen and I sat in the back of the taxi wide eyed as our driver weaved in and out of traffic, barely missing a collision with a bus. When we arrived at our guesthouse, we were met by a sweet man who helped manage the guesthouse. He carried our bags in and showed us to our room. We were surprised to say the least. It was described on the Internet as a hundred year old house that was being restored, but we really thought the restoration would be further along than it was. However it was extremely clean and the bed was comfortable so that was all that mattered. It wasn't like we were going to be spending our time in the room anyway. 
After a good nights sleep, we headed into Tallinn to see old town. We had been told by a number of people that Old Town Tallinn was spectacular and they were right! It was extra exciting because we experienced the last day of Old Town Week and the town was in full entertainment mode. There were street performers, flash mobs, puppet shows, live music...every time we turned a corner there was something else to see. We took a time out for coffee and almond porridge at a restaurant and sat and people watched for almost an hour. 
This porridge was whole oat groats cooked in milk and brown sugar. It was delicious and filling! 
We watched a puppet show from behind

Friday, June 7, 2013

Leaving Finland

We have one more hour on the train before we reach Helsinki where we will catch a ferry to Tallinn, Estonia to begin our journey through the Baltic States-Estonia, Latvia and finally, Lithuania, where another piece of our ancestral heritage lies. This one however, will not meet us for a tour of the city. Instead it will be beneath our feet and all around us and we may never discover what it holds. This particular part of our personal history is a mystery-hinging on a great, great grand uncle, Vladislaw Dembskis-who, although trained early on as a priest, eventually turned his back on the church in a particularly vile way and spent the remainder of his life in Lithuania and later America openly criticizing the Catholic Church and her hierarchy. He wrote countless articles, pamphlets and books as a "freethinker" and before I left on this trip I found a copy of his book, Inquisition, online in Google Books-google's attempt to photocopy and make available online books that they deem important. I was duly impressed to find Inquisition there, but my attempt to get a glimpse into the mind of my relative was thwarted by the fact that it was in Lithuanian. My grasp of the Lithuanian language is only marginally better than my grasp of Finnish, which is literally nil (although I have learned how to say "thank you" in Finnish). I can say the word coffee in Lithuanian, but besides that only a few choice swear words which I wouldn't dare utter in public and a few songs taught to us as children. One in particular we were told proclaims, "My girlfriend has fat legs..." So I doubt it will get us any points for eloquence IF that is even the correct translation!!

It was incredibly bittersweet this morning leaving Lomamokkila. I don't know if I have ever enjoyed myself or relaxed as thoroughly as I did there. Not only was the setting phenomenal-the lake, the birch forests, the flower gardens, the animals-but the food was magnificent, a true taste of Finland. And Kalle and Laura, the owners, were spectacular hosts and have created an oasis of calm and comfort. If you ever happen to be in Finland, it is well worth a visit. Very reasonably priced and lots to see in the area IF you ever want to leave the farm. Check it out here:
Doreen and I were talking yesterday about the fact that no matter where we were in Finland, people came up to us to ask us directions, or bus schedules or various other questions, mistaking us for Finns. It was thrilling in a way that we could blend in so seamlessly, travel around so anonymously. We were not perceived to be tourists at all and that made us incredibly happy. We both hope it will be the same in Lithuania!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Meals at Lomamokkila

I am limited in the length of my posts here. I don't know if it is the iPad or Finnish internet, but it is just easier to start a new post on the food at Lomamokkila. A few days before we got here, I emailed Kalle and asked about how we get to the B&B from the train station as it is quite far out in the country. Do we take a taxi (or taksi as they are spelled here-Finnish is a very phonetic language) or a bus? When he responded with my options he also asked if we would be joining them for dinner-it was €14 a piece and we quickly decided that since we would be on a train most of that day it might be nice to just stay in for dinner. However, since they had a kitchen available we figured we'd go into town at some point, buy groceries and I would cook. Needless to say, we abandon that idea minutes after we sat down to dinner that first night. Last nights dinner consisted of a winter squash soup with thyme that I had to restrain Doreen from going back for thirds. They had a pot roast like dish with large chunks of beef along with carrots and other vegetables. The meat was from the highland cattle they raise on the ranch-strangely enough these are also the cattle they raise at the ranch where I cook in Camp Verde! The meat was remarkably tender with a clean flavor. We ate vendace-the tiny fish I have discovered are ubiquitous here in Finland which we could eat at every meal as they are delicious! There was a green salad, potato salad with fresh dill, baked macaroni and cheese, spiced green tomatoes, mashed potatoes with gravy and bread pudding for dessert. When we were filling our plates, another guest was pouring himself a drink from a row of pitchers lined up with milk, water and what I thought was iced tea. Doreen asked if I wanted water or tea and the guest took a sip of tea and said, "It is beer!"  Laura then came over and told us it was homemade beer! It is yeasty and almost sweet and only faintly alcoholic, but we are smitten with it. Breakfast this morning was equally sumptuous with yogurt, granola, Finnish porridge (baked oatmeal), an assortment of sweet rolls, vendace (again! And yes, we ate them for breakfast!!), thin sliced cheese and meat, boiled eggs,  sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, pickled herring (I did get Doreen to try a bite of mine, but she made a face saying, "I didn't like it as a kid and I still don't like it!"), a baked savory that consisted of a tender crust topped with vegetables and more. And of course, coffee, but no beer!
Tonight at dinner I actually took pics! The soup was a light vegetable soup that was so fresh the peas popped in your mouth. There was a baked salmon dish in an amazing sauce, meatballs, a grated turnip and raisin salad (which I can't wait to go home and recreate), grated beets baked in cream (another dish I will definitely try at home!), roasted tomatoes, green salad, cucumbers and a rhubarb purée with vanilla cream for dessert, although purée doesn't really describe it. Doreen had served herself dessert before me and was on her way back to our table when she tasted the first mouthful. I heard her moan from across the room. 

Lomamokkila in Savonlinna, Finland

We are staying for 3 days at a B&B in eastern Finland named Lomamokkila. When I found it on the internet, I considered it because it was a farm and the room rate included breakfast. Little did I know! This is a half step away from paradise! I have worked for B&B's and I know the work involved. Where I worked, we had kitchen staff (me and a part time helper), office staff, gardeners, housekeepers and a laundry gal. We slept 40 people when we were full. Here at Lomamokkila, as far as I can tell, Kalle and his wife Laura, run this entire farm with minimal outside help. There is a sweet young woman in the kitchen, but aside from that, it seems Kalle and Laura do it all. This evening after dinner (more on that later), Doreen and I walked outside and Kalle was watering a flower bed. I asked him if he had a gardener who kept up the grounds and he laughed and said, "I wish!". Right then the older of his two young daughters (they are 3 & 5) picked up a watering can and began watering right along with him, so he does have some help! There are flowers everywhere, lilac bushes line the end of the driveway, poppies, bleeding hearts, roses, lupines and so many more that I can't even pretend I know the names of. There are apple trees and birch trees, willows and hemlocks. We go barefoot in the soft grass (a real treat for this Texas gal!) and constantly have our noses in blossoms (Doreen can't pass a flower without seeing if it has a scent).  
Bleeding Hearts! 
The flower bed outside our room with daisies and the most amazing lupines! They were blooming all over southern Finland; in ditches, on the side of the highway, huge patches of them in yards, all pink and purple and taller than knee high!  
The birch lined driveway.
The Highland Cattle Kalle and Laura raise.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Days 3,4 and Beyond...

We left Tampere this morning and are on a train to Savonlinna, a beautiful town in eastern Finland. There is a famous castle there, built on a massive rock on an island. We are staying at a B&B on a farm, complete with animals and gardens and orchards and a sauna house on the edge of the lake. Meals come mostly from what is produced on the farm (and surrounding farms) and I look forward to cooking a bit in the public kitchen located in a Laplandish hut not far from the main house. Cooking and saunas and swims in the lake between trips to town to play tourist. 
This contrasts sharply with our visit in Tampere, a vibrant city in western Finland where we met our cousins, had a whirlwind tour of the city by the most accomplished tour guide ever and a meal with many of our Finnish relatives. It was heart warming and bittersweet to meet these relatives for a few hours and then say good bye knowing full well we might never see them again. This was especially true of the grandmothers, Laura and Laila, at almost 80 and 86. I saw a familial resemblance and felt it in my heart. I'm sure they thought we were silly Americans when Doreen and I teared up with the wish our mother could have been there to meet them. Mom-these pictures will have to suffice, but know we were thinking of you!
 With Laura (Juha's mother) and Laila (Jyri's grandmother)
Doreen with Arja (Jyri's mother and Laila's daughter)
From left: Laura Niemi, Arja Siimes, Laila Nieminen, Jukka Nieminen, Jukka's daughter tucked behind him, Pekka Nieminen and Eija "Tiina" Aho (Juha's sister) 
This was the amazing meal we had! Reindeer quiche (one with a gluten free crust!), rhubarb bars with a vanilla cream sauce, a quark cheesecake (quark is a milk product that falls somewhere between cream cheese, sour cream and yogurt) and, in the pitcher on the right hand side, red currant juice made from red currants in Tiina's yard! What a feast!
Our cousins and tour guides extraordinaire, Juha and Jyri!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Day 1. Helsinki

Our first view of Finland from the plane.
The day before I left for vacation I told a neighbor that it would take me three weeks to learn to relax and one week to enjoy it. If the rest of this trip is anything like today, I have nothing to worry about. Of course, when I was awakened at 3 a.m. because of light streaming through the window, I had my doubts. We experienced about 3 hours of twilight last night...not darkness, but enough light that we could sit on the deck and read a book. Already sleep deprived from the flight over, this did not make me hopeful about my energy level for the day. The Finnish people are the biggest coffee drinkers in the world and now I know why. Doreen and I immediately fell into step with them and in addition to our morning ration, we supplemented throughout the day. By 8:15 we were at the bus stop beside the hotel and just minutes later caught our ride to downtown Helsinki. First stop, the train station to get our tickets for our trip to Tampere tomorrow, about 2 hours north of Helsinki. There we will spend a few days with our new found cousins.
Train station in Helsinki. So practical and easy to navigate! And most all the clerks speak English!
After procuring our tickets we took off to explore the city on foot. I had a rough map with suggestions of things to do written in the margins and we headed out to look for the open air Market by the ferry docks. I knew we were heading in the right direction because a young Finnish woman (studying for her PhD in linguistics at the local University) who spoke excellent English must've thought we looked pitiful standing on the street corner with a map. She walked with us for a few blocks, telling us of Finnish history and then we parted ways with her pointing down the road to our destination.  We passed a large church up on a hill and stopped to take pics.
After cresting the hill and turning a corner, the Market was before us with over a hundred booths and beyond that ships docked in the azure water.
The first booths at the Market were fruit vendors and the fragrance of fresh strawberries was everywhere. Most of the fruit was from Spain (there was snow on the ground a month ago, so it is a little early in the season for veggies and fruit here) but there were some very small strawberries from Finland. They had huge blueberries, cherries and apricots-all from Spain. Most all the produce was marked with country of origin. Further down were vegetables-tiny cauliflowers the size of my fist, fennel bulbs, zucchini, fat white asparagus, even tomatoes. And then there were the potatoes, bin after bin filled with piles of the tiniest, most uniform potatoes I've ever seen, still covered in dirt and sold by the kilo. Even though we had a small kitchenette in our hotel room complete with a two burner stovetop, there were no pots or pans ( do Finns travel with cookware? Doubtful...). How I wanted to buy a half kilo and boil them up and coat them in butter and dill! We saw wonderful Finnish hand crafts; lots of felted wool hats and scarves (the most unusual ones from an exotic looking woman from Santa Barbara who married a Finnish man and now makes her home in Helsinki), carved birch coasters and kitchen utensils, elegant leather gloves, pottery the colors of the ocean and so much more. The food booths all served variations of the same meal-roasted salmon, vendace (small fish similar to smelts which are rolled in rye flour and fried), the tiny new potatoes dripping with butter and dill (if I couldn't cook them at least I could eat them!), and mixed vegetables. The variation we chose included a bit of squid rings also.
We sat at a picnic table in a huge orange tent which gave our skin a healthy glow. Doreen and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Travel as a Job

About 5 years ago, while Scott and I were on a vacation in Europe, I remember telling him, "I sure wish I could get paid to travel!". The following year, I received a phone call asking about my availability in September to work in Heidelberg, Germany. It was known that I would be traveling in Germany at that time and it sure seemed a good opportunity to save on airfare if I was already going to be in the vicinity. The rest is history for me. I just completed my fourth year working in Germany (but now in Kaiserslautern) and tomorrow I leave for my second trip to South Korea. Two more trips to South Korea are planned for this year. I've also had the opportunity to travel domestically-Augusta, Georgia; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Columbus, Georgia; Clarksville, Tennessee. The work is interesting and challenging and I am so grateful that I get to do this. But there have been sacrifices-I haven't planted a real garden in 2 years: that does not mean my garden is barren as I have kale and chard and beet greens most all the time. But I am always hesitant to plant tomatoes and beans and eggplant because they need a bit more tending than the greens. I have 5 tomato plants that I am planting today with hope the rain predicted in the next few days will make them feel at home enough to flourish until I return. And I feel my Farmers Market work suffers...who wants to get hooked on a particular type of bread if there are times when it just won't be available? As if the work travel is not enough, my sister and I will take off for 4 weeks the end of May to travel through Finland and the Baltic States-(specifically Lithuania, but we will travel in Estonia and Latvia also). It will be wonderful to be on our own schedule and move about freely-a freedom I don't have as a civilian working on military bases around the world.
While I was in Germany a few weeks ago my colleague Rebecca and I finished work a bit early my last day and we headed to the spa. Last year she suggested we visit the spa and just never got around to it. She was not going to let it slip by this year. We ended up spending almost 8 hours there. The original name of this post was going to be On Nudity because this spa trip challenged ideas we hold on to dearly here in the States. My own personal feelings on nudity are out of the norm for the place I live. And, through the spa experience, I have come to realize they are much more in tune with the European model. Obviously, one cannot generalize about a country-or a cluster of countries-and their mores and habits. But I do see a different mindset in Europe when it comes to the human body. On one of our first trips to Europe, Scott and I saw a commercial in which a woman dressed in a white jumpsuit walked to the edge of a silver lake, unzipped the jumpsuit, stepped out of it and, completely naked, dove into the water. I was stunned. This was a commercial during prime time TV. We would never see this in the States.
At CUBO (the spa) -you bring your own towels, robes and spa shoes (flip flops or clogs) but at all the saunas-and they have many different kinds-you hang your robe up outside and sit on your towel inside. The saunas hold lots of people-some had 15 or so, but others were packed with thirty or more men and women. Most were our age and older-some obviously in their 80's, but there were a few twentysomethings. No one sat there and stared, you made eye contact and smiled and sometimes conversations took place. Sometimes we clapped when the music got lively and we gasped when ice chips were flung about the room. All these folks sitting in one very hot room together naked. I am not one who is uncomfortable about my body. It is the one into which I was born and the only one I have. I didn't have a choice to have longer legs or smaller breasts, what I have is what I have. And this fact was brought home to me on a very deep level sitting in that room. ALL OF US have the bodies we have and they are simply our bodies. They don't say much-if anything- about who we are inside. When the sauna was over we would walk into the robe room, grab our robes, slip on our shoes and walk out into the garden area where there were row upon row of lounge chairs. We didn't put on our robes, just placed them on the chaise and laid ourselves down...naked. We drank water, had a snack and talked and no one seemed self conscious or uncomfortable. I walked to one of the outdoor showers after a particularly searing sauna and a German woman about my age was in the shower next to me and she turned and asked, "You like?" I smiled and told her, "Very much!" She smiled back at me and walked away.
I wish I could clearly convey how this entire experience touched me. I was raised in a household of all females and my own children grew up mostly the same way. We were not terribly modest around the house and thought nothing of walking to and from the bath unclothed. Indeed, living in Texas in a house without air conditioning it was not unusual to walk around without clothes in the summer. It did not then and does not now seem weird or unhealthy or shameful.
I am not passing judgement with this post just wanting to let you know what an amazing experience the German spa was for me and how I felt right at home there. I have been to a few spas here in the States and saunas were taken with towels wrapped around you. There was no walking around the grounds without some sort of covering. If you have the chance to have a spa day in Europe, I encourage you to go. I would be very interested to hear of your experience. Personally, I don't think I will go to Germany again without somehow fitting in an afternoon at the spa and I am looking forward to taking quite a few saunas with my sister while in Finland. I hear there is one sauna to every 2 people there!