December 30, 2009

Old and new

It feels like the end of the year has just snuck up on me. I can't believe it's New Year's Eve tomorrow. It was a weird year. I worried it was starting off with a bad omen when my dad died, but fortunately things went fine. I had a bit of luck even, like that my accident in Croatia wasn't any worse than it was, and that in a year of the Mexican flu I didn't take one sick day and only had a couple of minor colds. Looking back on 2009 though, it was just sort of... there. Not particularly good or bad, it just was. Which I guess isn't really a bad thing. I'm ending the year feeling rather strong and stable. I've changed some things recently and feel mentally better than I have in awhile. Now if I could just get into better physical shape...

There are already a few things I'm looking forward to in 2010: going to the UK for a good friend's wedding, making what should be a pretty epic trip to Oregon, possibly going to Spain again. And hopefully making some movements towards Australia by the end of the year.

Here's hoping everyone has a wonderful and happy new year!

Gifts and food

I have a lot of photos to post lately. It's the holidays I guess...

Anyway, beginning with gifts received... The last few years a forum I participate in has done a little gift exchange. I've joined in last year and this year. Names are drawn by one person so you don't know who will be sending you gifts and you get to surprise the person whose name you get. It's pretty nice, especially since we live all over the place, so you don't know where your gift could come from, plus a lot of the people on the forum are pretty artistic and make some cool stuff. So the other day my package arrived in a UK envelope. A handmade card and a bunch of little gifts were inside. Here is what I got:

The girl made a lovely piece of art with a sort of abstract design, and she sent a notebook with a Russian doll on the cover, one of those handy compact shopping bags with cute, happy food all over it, and a piece of tambourine from one that broke during a Decemberists show in London. I thought it was all very sweet.

Then I finally got around to making the gift I got last year. Amongst other things, I was sent a sewing kit to make a chicken cushion. I know, sounds a bit weird, but I thought it was pretty neat. Here's my chicken:

It's aimed at kids actually, so it's pretty simple, though it took me some time to get the hang of the stitching. I got there in the end, though the most tiring part was cutting up some old clothes to make the stuffing. It took a lot more to fill it than I expected; there's 3 shirts and 6 socks in there! It's lucky that in the process I didn't accidentally cut a hole in my pajama bottoms (yes, I lived in my pjs today). It took me most of the afternoon to finish, but in the meantime I listened to some music, and then to Billy Connelly and QI mp3s, which was good for that kind of work.

I guess I didn't feel like I've had enough food in the past few holiday party-filled weeks, so I made a full turkey dinner for myself. I realized while cooking that it was probably the most food I've made at one time in my little kitchen. I had to shuffle things around quite often.

The little kitchen that could

I had so much food. Which is the mark of any good holiday dinner, I suppose. In the photo on the stove is a big pot of mashed potatoes, gravy, and leftover sweet potatoes from Christmas that I had planned to reheat, but just couldn't be bothered with by the end. Then in the foreground is the turkey (just a fillet) and stuffing. Mostly hidden to the left is a big bowl of homemade cranberry sauce. It's the first time I've ever made it, but it was a really simple and delicious recipe using orange juice.

Let's eat!

Guess what I'll be eating for the next couple of days....

December 27, 2009

My 3rd day of Christmas

Christmas gathering 3: Boxing Day

E and K had a casual gathering at their house, featuring tons of delicious, homemade food, mostly Swedish specialities. I was quickly buzzing on sugar overload and drunk on glögg, Swedish mulled wine.

The food table, including the glögg, Swedish gingerbread, and salads some people brought

More sweets: thumbprint cookies, meringues, and knäck (caramels).

The living room and Christmas tree

In case all those sweets weren't enough, they later made a pot of risgrynsgröt, a rice pudding sweetened with brown sugar and cinnamon and served with milk. Yum.

There were also the cats to play with, of course.

Lillet, looking very graceful

Sazerac, trying to look innocent

Good, ol' Coco

Now that the Christmas celebrations are over, I can begin a week of sitting at home doing nothing. Well, not nothing, I have tons I'd like to get done and I hope to not be too lazy. But it will be nice to mostly just chill.

December 25, 2009

My 2nd day of Christmas

Christmas gathering 2: Christmas Day

An American girl I know in Leiden hosted lunch at her house. There were supposed to be 5 of us, but a couple couldn't make it, but that was ok, it was still a very nice afternoon with delicious food. The girl hosting made most of the meal which included wild mushroom soup; a simple salad with rucola, orange, and fennel; asparagus and goat's cheese quiche; and peppermint creme brulee. I also added glazed sweet potatoes to the offerings.

The table looked very pretty and festive, and included Christmas crackers

The soup also looked wonderful, with balsamic vinegar and sage leaves

The scrumptious creme brulee

It was a relaxing afternoon and it was nice to spend it with others and enjoy good food. In the early evening I carefully shuffled back home in the freezing wind and watched The Muppets Christmas Carol. Later at night I called my family and wished everyone happy holidays. Some bittersweet times: my cousin is due to have her baby, the first of the next generation, around the 1st of the year, while my mom told me that my grandpa is ill with cancer. Such is life.

My 1st day of Christmas

Christmas gathering 1: Christmas Eve

A groups of us in Leiden got together in someone's lovely apartment and had a potluck dinner and exchanged small gifts. The food was great and quite diverse, considering no plans had been made for what each person should bring. We amazingly ended up with only one dessert, which was a delicious apple and raisin bread pudding with maple sauce. There were also Spanish cheeses, salads, homemade Chinese dumplings, and some curry and samosas. After we'd stuffed ourselves, we started a game to dole out the gifts. You rolled a die and each number had an certain action, plus there were slips of paper to draw with further actions. So gifts were shuffled around and won and lost (first while still wrapped, then unwrapped), but of course in the end everyone got something. I got an LED headlamp. Very handy!

We then settled in with conversation and wine, and eventually the hostess set up a hookah with fruity tobacco. It was the first time I'd used one and I quite liked it, especially in such a nice, social setting. A wonderful evening in all.

December 13, 2009

How I spent my Sunday

I baked a cookie or two:

The chocolate ones took forever because I couldn't put too many on the tray and they had to cool a bit before I could take them off the tray and I only have one cookie sheet so I had to wait before putting more in the oven. Oh well, they are so good, so it was worth it.

Food consumed so far today (as of 8:30 pm): two bowls of cereal and a lot of cookies. That can't be good.

As I baked, I listened to a lot of music though, which I've been doing entirely too little of lately. I caught up on some mixes from a friend and listened to some Quasi. I also listened to Eels' Electro-Shock Blues, which I've been wanting to do over the past few days because I'm reading E's memoir and I'm at the part where he talks about recording that album. I was also trying to get into the holiday spirit by listening to some Christmas songs recorded by a guy I know in Portland. Some of the songs reminded me of the Christmas album I must have heard hundreds of times growing up, The Perry Como Christmas Album, which we had on 8-track, which meant that it would keep playing until someone stopped it, so it would often play 2-3 times in an afternoon. I still consider his renditions the gold standard for some of those songs. Of course I had to go and try to download it, which was a bit hard, but I got most of the songs. It brings back good memories of the times when my parents still had the energy for Christmas and there were decorations all over the house and lights outside, and a big tree, and we opened our presents in this little area of the house where my mom would set up her collection of those ceramic houses that are lit from the inside. I'm also trying to get some of the old Christmas movies that I loved watching every year, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Charlie Brown Christmas.

December 4, 2009


My delays with holiday photos continues, but finally, my Croatia stuff is up. My photos are here.

I'd been interested in going to Croatia for at least a couple of years, after hearing friends rave about it and hearing that it was regaining its popularity as a holiday destination. The days of the Yugoslavian war seemed long gone and it was rebuilt and safe. Before going, I had the impression that the country was full of beautiful nature, friendly people who speak good English, and an interesting mix of cultural influences. I found that all of these things were true and I had a very fulfilling trip there.

I flew into the capital, Zagreb, which I had heard wasn't the most brilliant city, but the flights there were cheaper than to Dubrovnik. I had that afternoon and evening to look around. I mostly wandered around the older part of the city, where my hostel was. There were some interesting parts I came across, but I left with a strange impression of Zagreb. Maybe it's just because it's quite different to the more touristy cities I spent most of my time in along the coast.

After one night in Zagreb, I flew south to Dubrovnik. Before I even entered the city, just from my first glimpse through the gate in the city wall, I was already enchanted by it. It's so easy for me to fall in love with old cities made up of tiny, narrow streets, and that pretty much describes all of Dubrovnik's old center. I hiked up to the hostel I was staying in (a lot of stairs were involved) and found out that my single room was actually a couple of doors down in a private house. A lot of the accommodation in Croatia is rooms in private houses that people rent out. I stayed in a few rooms like that and it was pretty interesting, a nice way to see Croatian life. So the man who owns the house came and showed me to my room, carrying my bag for me, which was nice since I was tired of hauling it up the stairs. I then spent the evening checking out the city. Just down from the hostel was a door through the city wall which lead out to a bar set up on the rock overlooking the sea. I peeked out and caught sight of the sun setting. After dinner, I spent a couple of hours just walking all over Dubrovnik, around the busier places, but then up into quieter corners. I loved every minute of it.

The next day I woke to find the sun beaming down from a nearly cloudless sky. It hadn't been all that sunny so far, but now it was perfect. I had breakfast and then joined the masses shuffling along the city walls that Dubrovnik is known for. So many old cities in the world only have ruined reminders of the walls that once protected them from any outside threats, but Dubrovnik's walls are fully intact. Walking around them gives amazing views onto the city and out over the sea. I took my time and made the circuit in about 2 hours. I was so happy the weather was so beautiful. The entire walk was very memorable. In the afternoon I had some time to kill, so I took a glass-bottomed boat ride. We didn't see many fish, but it was still different to see the city from the water and to go past Lokrum island just off-shore. I then went to the bar on the rocks near my hostel and relaxed there, soaking in the view, until dinner.

I had to leave Dubrovnik the next day and spend most of the day heading up the coast to Split. 4 1/2 hours stuck in a bus. I was expecting to sleep or listen to music, but I never got to that. Instead I met a few people on the bus who I talked to, or other people whose stories I listened to. First, at the Dubrovnik bus station, I met a guy who happened to live in Vancouver, Washington. I sat in front of him on the bus and we talked awhile. Later, a Croatian guy got on and sat in the empty seat next to me. He was very talkative and he told me about the history of places we were passing through, how pirates used to rule one area, and about his family's olive groves, and about how Mjlet, near Dubrovnik, is the most beautiful island in the world, and about being in the army during the Yugoslavian War and driving a tank into an area to liberate it when he was only 18. I enjoyed his stories. We arrived in Split in the late afternoon and by the time I settled into my room and then headed out into the city, it was already dark. I walked along the Riva, the waterfront area that looks out to all the ferries that carry people out to various islands, or even across to Italy or to northern Croatian cities. I had a wander around the main attraction in Split, Diocletian's palace, which is now filled in with shops and houses and restaurants. It had a similar feel to the old, narrow streets of Dubrovnik, but it just wasn't as charming for me. Overall Split didn't really win me over, but maybe I just wasn't there long enough. I left the next morning on the ferry to Vis.

It took 2 1/2 hours to get to Vis. It was a bright, warm day. I laid on a bench in the shade on the top deck of the ferry and watched the puffy white clouds move slowly back and forth to the slight rocking of the ship. When we arrived in Vis harbor, we almost seemed like we wouldn't fit, the ferry towered over all of the buildings in the town. I arrived and had no idea where I needed to go. I had an apartment booked, but I didn't have any directions for how to get there. I went to a travel agency and a very nice guy helped me hunt down the owner of the apartment. Two things I liked about Vis: typical of small island life, everyone knew everyone; and just about everyone was so friendly and helpful. So the apartment owner came and got me from the waterfront and took me to the apartment, which was so close to the harbor I had a view of the ferry out my window. The apartment was wonderful. I had a large bed and a couch, a fridge, my own bathroom, and then the patio. A huge, enormous patio that was larger than the room. Larger than my apartment in Leiden (not that that's hard). I wanted to stay there forever. I was glad I'd be there a few nights at least. I went to the bakery just on the corner from where I was staying and got a huge made-to-order sandwich that only cost a couple of euros, and then I sat in a park-like area on the waterfront and enjoyed the sun and the atmosphere of the place. It was then that I saw the band leave on the ferry.

On my first day on Vis, I decided to rent a scooter since I never had ridden one before, and well, we all know how that went. But I don't regret renting it. It was a more interesting way to get to the other side of the island than taking the bus. It was pretty cool and Mediterranean, riding along in a skirt and sandals on a sunny day, even though I was actually rather terrified, especially on the ride over. And especially because I stopped at this viewpoint before heading downhill into Komiža and when I pulled back onto the road, I ended up with the cross-island bus behind me while heading down a bunch of switchbacks into the town. It was slightly nervewracking and I felt like the slowest scooter rider ever. But I survived it, parked the bike (with the help of this middle-aged guy), walked to the waterfront, plonked on a bench, and spent half an hour gathering my nerves back together. I decided that, fine, especially since I was having trouble with this whole parking of the bike, and it all made me nervous, I would just stay in Komiža for the afternoon, go to the beach, relax, and just drive back to Vis in time to return the bike. No worries for a few hours. So that's what I did. I had some lunch and played with a cute kitten that came to check out what I was eating. I went to a beach that was not the most beautiful on the island, but there were other foreigners there and it was close, so it worked for me. It's unfortunate that almost all the beaches in Croatia are not sand, but pebble. It's a bit uncomfortable. But the water felt great and little fish swam around my feet. I'm so not used to swimming in the sea. Once I laid back to sort of float on my back and I got confused when I found it difficult to stand up again. I forgot about the high salt content. As you dry off, you end up with a white coating of salt. After a couple of hours of hanging out, I headed back to Vis Town. I took a different, longer road back across the island and that drive made renting the scooter worth it. The road slowly climbed above the sea. The sky was starting to haze over, so there was this pink sun casting light on the water and Komiža. This road was quieter, I didn't encounter any other cars for awhile, and it was pretty nice being on the scooter, having nothing blocking your view, just the hills around you and the sea below. The road crested a hill and then headed east and down into the center of the island. There is where the island has all of its vineyards and olive groves. There were plenty of both on both sides of the roads, and the vines and trees were full of fruit. The houses were back from the road or up on the hills that lined the valley. It felt like Tuscany. After crossing most of the island, the road headed back uphill before heading down towards Vis Town, with amazing views over the bay. It was after that that I had the accident.

The following day I took it easy and stayed around Vis. I walked north from the town, first walking past a small church and the town's cemetery. I carried on along the road until it ended but I found a path and ended up with a wonderful view over a more northern part of the island. It was so quiet I could hear the waves from where I was and I sat there for at least an hour and didn't see anyone. I relucantly went back into town and later in the evening headed in the other direction to check out the neighboring town of Kut. On the way there I had stopped for a second and this guy walked past and said hi. I didn't recognize him at first, but it turned out he had been at the medical center when I was there, he and his wife had to take their daughter in because she had come down with chicken pox. We chatted for a few minutes, he happened to be Dutch, but didn't sound Dutch because he's lived in England for awhile. In the end he invited me to dinner in the house his family and a bunch of friends were renting. He told me to come back to the house in about an hour, so I wandered around Kut in the meantime and watched the sun set while wading in the warm water. I then joined a bunch of strangers for dinner, but I felt at home straight away, they were all lovely people. The guy I had run into was cooking dinner: chicken paprika and roasted potatoes with wild rosemary he had picked down the road. It was delicious, the company was great: it was all wonderful, a happy coincidence that made the accident almost worthwhile. That experience was the final thing to make me truly fall in love with the island.

I sadly and painfully had to leave Vis the next morning. Painfully, not because of any lingering ache from my fall, but because I had to be up at dawn to catch the catamaran at 7 am. I was able to stay awake as we left the harbor, but I was sound asleep for most of the crossing. Back in Split, I wandered around Diocletian's palace in the daytime before picking up my rental car and heading north to a small town called Korenica. It was an interesting drive on a rather empty freeway with long tunnels through the mountains (one of the longest was 3.5 miles long). Arriving in Korenica was a very different place indeed from the touristy towns on the coast. It was cooler and much more basic. The town attracts people wanting to stay overnight near the Plitvice Lakes, which is why I was there, but despite the fair number of visitors, it was much more Croatian than the places on the coast. I stayed in a private house owned by a middle-aged couple who were kind, though they didn't speak much English. It was a cozy house with quite a few furs and mounted antlers about.

I delved back into tourist land again the next day when I went to visit the lakes. I can't imagine what it would be like in high season, it was crowded enough in September. And most of the paths through the park are these wooden boardwalks above the water, barely 2 people wide, with no railing, and used by a lot of retirees with poor footing. I wonder how often people fall in... Plitvice Lakes are in a national park in Croatia, one of the most recommended, and it lived up to the reputation. There are a series of lakes, each divided by travertine, a mineral deposit that forms from the water and moss. The water then builds up behind the travertine and creates waterfalls between each lake. The water is an amazing shade of green-blue and is so clear at the edges. There are a lot of fish and ducks and the whole area is surrounded by hills which were covered with trees starting to get their fall colors. It was a beautiful place, and it was so reviving to be in nature. Fortunately near the end of my walk around the lakes I managed to shake off most of the crowds and had a more quiet, solo walk through the woods. Before boarding a shuttle bus back towards where my car was, I took a peek at the last lake for me to reach, which was the highest of the lakes, so it was really the first lake. I stood gazing at the beautiful lake and the layers of hills in the distance and wondered how long it would take the water there to reach the bottom.