Budapest: Nov. 1 – 3, 2018

photo budapest

Parliament sparkles at night

It was my idea to take the train from Vienna to Budapest. The ride was under three hours and I thought we might enjoy the scenery. As it turned out, I fell asleep (as I usually do in any moving vehicle) and had to rely on *Mr. Wiz and *Big A for the descriptions of the small towns and countryside that we passed. The train station is jam-packed, so it was comforting to see that little sign, with our last name on it, held by the driver that was to take us to our hotel.

In all the times I’ve stayed at Hilton hotels, I have never experienced one like this. It seems as if the staff stands at attention and clicks their heels to welcome us, with military precision. They operate together as a well-oiled machine, providing impeccable service throughout the Budapest Hilton. The subdued colors and stylish furnishings give it an elegant, yet contemporary feel.

Budapest is one of the largest cities in Europe and Hungary’s capital. Because of the considerable damage left behind after World War, the city is much more modern than Prague. It’s also more sprawling, less touristy and is known for its vibe. Budapest is actually made up of two cities, Buda and Pest, which are separated by the Chain Bridge that spans the Danube River.

With not a moment to spare, we set off to explore. Because the sights are not all within walking distance, we rely on the good old on/off tourist bus, so as not to miss anything. We pass on the funicular and decide to walk up the steep path to Castle Hill to admire the views. The third largest building in the world with over 600 rooms, the commanding presence of the Parliament building is even more impressive when it’s lit up and sparkles at night. We stroll the luxurious grounds of Buda Castle, a palace complex built in 1265. The Matthias Church, dating back to 1015, misleads us with its neo-Gothic exterior and its mystical, exotic interior. Heroes’ Square is impressive, with its stately statues honoring important Hungarian leaders. The Great Market Hall is bustling and we make sure to buy some of the city’s famous paprika to take home.

As we stroll along the Danube, we notice that people are quiet as they approach the Bronze Shoe Memorial. Between 1944 – 1945, many people (most of them Jewish) were murdered along these banks. Before being shot and having their bodies fall into the Danube to be swept away, they were forced to remove their valuable shoes, so as not to waste them. The assorted sizes and styles of shoes that have been bronzed are placed as if the person has just stepped out of them. Whether one shoe was in front of the other or one is on its side, you get the feeling of motion and of realism. It is such an emotional and moving tribute.

It’s worth the wait to eat at Mazel Tov.  The contemporary Israeli restaurant is housed in an old warehouse that looks abandoned on the outside and is one of the city’s classier ruin bars. Derelict buildings circa World War II have become a tourist attraction when transformed into bars and restaurants all over Budapest. When we take a minute to look up from our tahini, hummus, chicken shawarma and homemade, hot pita bread served in a paper bag, we notice the vines hanging from two stories up and the glass ceiling; very cool.

The Hilton recommends a restaurant down the street and we lunch on shrimp, duck pate and goulash soup along with Hungarian wine at the Baltazár Wine Bar. When we learn that two sister restaurants are nearby, our dinner decisions are made. Pierrot Restaurant is housed in a 13thcentury bakery. The black and white photos that line the walls and the pianist playing softly in the corner convey an old-world elegance. We share tastes of the duck in puff pastry, beef tenderloin, venison loin and are starting to appreciate Hungarian wines. By the time we arrive at the 21 Restaurant, Mr. Wiz is well versed on local wines and has an interesting conversation with the manager. Together, they choose a bottle to compliment the rack of lamb, crispy duck and chicken paprikash, which is accompanied by homemade spätzle.

We cannot leave Budapest without visiting Szimpla Kert, the first ruin bar and now known as one of the world’s most famous bars. Created in an abandoned warehouse in the Jewish Quarter, It’s hard to describe; think of a giant, dark junk shop that serves liquor (in a good way). The DJ is housed in a glass room, music is blaring and people from all walks of life (babies in strollers to a senior citizen tour group and everyone in between) are either sitting down (on bar stools, in an old bathtub fitted with benches or inside the body of a car) or strolling around to view what looks like a Fellini movie on steroids.

Is it the entire room filled with old televisions featuring psychedelic patterns on the screens, the wide-eyed doll heads glaring at me from the wall-to-wall shelves or the knight in armor standing next to the six-foot ceramic rabbit amid a collection of old typewriters dangling upside down from the ceiling that will give me nightmares this evening (in a good way)?

Instead, I fall asleep with visions of tomorrow’s last sumptuous buffet breakfast in the lovely hotel dining room, complete with castle views out every window followed by a morning of last minute sightseeing before saying goodbye to Buda and Pest and heading home.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

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Vienna, Austria: Oct. 29 – Nov. 1, 2018

Photo Vienna

Schönbrunn Palace

It’s a short flight from Prague to Vienna and by the time we get settled in our seats, we are already there. It’s a good feeling when you arrive in a foreign airport and see that little sign with your last name on it, so, once again, we hire a driver sent from our hotel.

The Der Wilhelmshof Hotel is a unique, family run boutique hotel. Designed in collaboration with Viennese artists, their art is not just placed on the walls or on display, but actually becomes part of the décor. Our room has a contemporary mural painted on the wall behind the bed that playfully continues onto the wall sconces.

We enjoy a drink in the hotel bar, as the cheery cocktail waitress (she introduces herself as “Pauline from Poland”) and the concierge assist us in a restaurant selection for the evening. The decision is unanimous; Schweizerhaus is a landmark from the 1920s serving traditional cuisine in a beautiful beer garden. It’s a short walk through a lovely park and a carnival that’s in full swing. We’re seated at a long communal table next to a large Viennese family. We smile, say hello and when they hear that we are from Texas, they are fascinated and have many questions. They guide us through the menu and do not steer us wrong. The gigantic, crispy pork knuckle arrives on a large wooden platter along with a helping of wiener schnitzel (thin pan-fried, breaded pork cutlets) and a warm potato salad made with oil rather than mayonnaise. The ice cold beer tops off a perfect meal. We thank our new friends, who all line up to shake our hands when they leave.

While walking the city streets, we discover that there is a refined and artistic elegance to Vienna. The largest city in Austria, it’s the birthplace of Mozart and Beethoven and known for its many imperial palaces. We feel as if we are taking a step back in time when we visit Schönbrunn Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former summer home of the Habsburg family.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral is considered the most important religious building in Vienna with its mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture and magnificent spires dating back to the 1300s. Considered the “mother church” to Roman Catholics, it was built on an ancient cemetery dating back to Roman times.

There is no time to visit them all, so we let Mr. Wiz* choose which museum we will explore. He makes a good choice; the Albertina Museum. The magnificently furnished state rooms from the Habsburg Palace come alive when they are accompanied by narratives of its occupants. The dramatic black and white photographs chronicling everyday life in poor New York City neighborhoods in the 1930s by Helen Levitt startle us. The comprehensive exhibit of Claude Monet details his life, revealing little known accounts that give us new insight and on display were paintings we’ve never seen at any other museums.

Once again, all the restaurant research Big A* and I have done has paid off. The music is loud, the place is packed and the tables are communal at Miznon, an Israeli restaurant. We stand on line to order lunch, gawking hungrily at the open kitchen. Both the lamb and beef burgers served in pita bread have won raves, but it is the charred, spiced cauliflower that is the star of the show. Grilled and served whole, we pull it apart and dunk it into tahini, one of the sauces offered. At Ulrich, a hip, casual restaurant, we lunch on chorizo flatbread and smoked salmon and trout. We are lucky to secure a dinner reservation at an upstairs table with a city view at Lugeck. Sharing entrees seems like the right thing to do, so we can all taste the fried chicken, shrimp and goulash with homemade spaetzle.

We go to great lengths to plan just the right cocktail hours. Alfred Loos is known as one of the pioneers of modern architecture, so we had to experience Loos American Bar. Designed in 1908, the groundbreaking concept combines dark mirrors, low lighting, wood and onyx into the 290 square foot space and fools you into thinking it is surprisingly larger. With Ella Fitzgerald serenading us softly in the background we’re reminded that this is one of those few times that the word “swanky” is apropos.

Das Loft Bar is perched on the 18th floor of the Sofitel Vienna. It’s dark and moody. The ceiling is covered with what looks like flowing silk awash in a combination of colors. Blended with the 360-degree views of the city sparkling back at us, we can’t help but  snuggle into our seats, order another round of cocktails and make another toast to beautiful Vienna.

* Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About’ page

 

 

Prague, the Czech Republic – Oct. 27 – 29, 2018

Photo Prague

Leave it to those millennials; Big A* reminds us that we should take advantage of one of the perks of the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card he suggested we switch to and meet at the VIP lounge in Madrid’s airport. After warm welcomes all-around, we compare the research we’ve all done and start creating daily itineraries for our visit.

The capital and the largest city in the Czech Republic, Prague, is known as “The City of a Hundred Spires.” There is a fairy-tale like quality to the city; the buildings all look as if they have just been painted their pastel colors and the Baroque architecture makes you feel as if you are strolling through a European Disneyland.

Rather than navigate the language and worry about changing our euros into Czech Korunas at the airport (not the best exchange rate), we decide to take advantage of the hotel pickup service. We are reassured by the driver that English is taught in schools and is Prague’s second language. He points out some sights along the way and tells us proudly that tomorrow is the country’s 100th anniversary of its independence and we can look forward to parades, fireworks and many special events.

The Hotel Leonardo has a wonderful, Old World feel about it. The genteel staff seems as if they have been waiting just for us to arrive and surprises us with an upgrade to a junior suite. After a quick review of the city map and all its walkable sights, we thank them in Czech (“Dê Koji” pronounced “Dye-koo-yi”) and head out to explore.

The show must go on! The pouring rain does not stop us or the many events planned. We snuggle into our raincoats and conclude that it might be better to keep moving than to stand in a downpour to watch the parade and fireworks.

We can’t decide if we prefer the day or night view from the Charles Bridge, which connects Prague’s Old Town and Castle Districts. Rather than take the tram, we decide to take the steps all the way up to Prague Castle and St. Vitus’ Cathedral, stopping along the way to admire the views. The castle is a city within itself, named the largest castle complex in the world by the “Guinness Book of World Records.” We tour its main floors and make sure not to miss the spiral staircases that lead up to small collections of everything from a torture chamber to a lady’s boudoir. St. George’s Basilica is the oldest surviving church within the castle. Built in 920, it initially served as a burial ground for princes before being converted to workshops for art and music. The Jewish Quarter isn’t too far a walk and we’re anxious to see the medieval synagogue and the historical exhibitions in its cemetery.

Balancing out our sightseeing with equal amounts of culinary adventures is always a high priority. Prague is known as a beer mecca, so a stop for one at the Restaurant Pekla in the cellar of the Strahov monastery is a must. The underground cave with thick, stone walls dates back to the 12th century and is a welcome respite from the weather. Hard to pass up with our beers are the large, warm pretzels at Kolkovna and the homemade sausage at Lokal, two Czech breweries we also visit. Though we can’t decide if our Prague favorite is the onion soup, mussels, roast duck, goulash or steak frites, we agree that Café de Paris is our choice for the loveliest restaurant. A beautifully restored bell-èpoque café, it exudes elegance and sophistication; just the thing for three, soggy, hungry souls.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Madrid, Spain: Oct. 23 – 26, 2018

Photo Madrid

The Royal Palace

Traveling with Mr. Wiz* is amazing. The last time we were in Madrid was eight years ago and yet he remembers every place we’ve been and how to get there as if it were yesterday. That said, we quickly plan our itinerary and set out, not wanting to waste a minute.

The bad news: The Royal Palace is not open to the public on its free day. The good news: there is a meeting with the German delegation and we are front and center to experience all the pomp and circumstance that is involved with a state visit: the changing of the guards, parade and musicians. Built in the 1700s, we marvel at the size of the structure (the largest building in Spain), which at one time housed the 3000 courtiers of King Felipe VXIII.

Retiro Park is just as we remembered it. One of the largest parks in Spain and a part of the Spanish monarchy until the late 19thcentury, it still seems to have a regal air about it, as its paths wind past sculptures, monuments, a serene lake and beautiful gardens.

We make sure we line up early for the free evening admission to the Prado National Museum. Being serenaded by Spanish guitar music from a local musician helps the time go by quickly. We spend the entire two hours admiring the detail within each painting and fascinated by the stories behind the people depicted.

History records show that tapas became popular in the Middle Ages in taverns that the lower classes frequented. The wine was served in jugs covered with a slice of bread to avoid spills. The word “tapas” evolved from the Spanish verb “tocar” (to cover) and tapas soon came to be known as the little morsels of food that are traditionally served with a drink.

The Mercado de San Miquel Public Market is now serving tapas, but when we arrive it is so crowded. The food at each stall looks amazing, but there is nowhere to sit and hardly anywhere to stand. We are afraid that we might accidently bite into someone’s tapas at this wall to wall giant cocktail party, so we opt to keep going.

Our exploring takes us to Terraza Cibeles, a lovely rooftop bar. The architectural elements of the neighboring buildings, the city views and the European techno music playing in the background makes us feel so hip. We pass on tapas after all and decide that we are still full from the delicious bocadillo (sandwich) we had for lunch at Bodega Vianda. With a seat on the second floor overlooking the city, we dined on jamón (cured ham produced in Spain and Portugal made from black Iberian pigs that is similar to prosciutto in look, but much tastier), sheep cheese and crusty bread; so simple, yet so delicious.

The Petit Palace Opera turned out to be a good choice. It’s a boutique hotel housed in a historic building, located near the main plazas, Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor (Madrid’s grandest plaza) and is within walking distance to most sights. Our Juliet balcony looks out over the pedestrian street, which is never without the throngs of people swarming in and out of the many stores and restaurants or watching one of the musicians, dancers or magicians performing.

I wish Mr. Wiz a Feliz Cumpleaños (Happy Birthday) and regale him with a poem that I have written in his honor:

It’s great being a 65’er
With all its wonderful perks

Senior discounts galore wherever you go
And cheaper health care that actually works

So, be adventurous, be happy and enjoy this wonderful stage
And most of all remember, to never act your age!

I surprise him with a lunch reservation at La Botin. According to “The Guinness Book of World Records,” it is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world (dating back to 1725) and is renowned for its roast sucking pig and lamb cooked over vine shoots in the huge charcoal oven that’s been there since opening day. My Spanish is better than I thought; the maître d’ honors my request to sit at Ernest Hemingway’s favorite table and even brings us a complimentary dessert. We dine slowly and savor each bite.

There are many flamenco shows in Madrid, but Cardamomo is the only one that has been sanctioned by The New York Times and it’s near our hotel. Atypical of most performances, the male dancer absolutely steals the show and we find ourselves shouting “…Ole!..” along with the rest of the audience. Note to self: Why did I stop taking flamenco lessons? Maybe it’s time to go back to dressing in my flamenco outfit and practicing the steps in my closet again?

An evening walk seems in order and what better way to end a perfect day than to scout out where our next and final dinner will be tomorrow evening. Having found La Sanabresa, a family run restaurant and a favorite of the locals, we sleep like babies, with visions of all of our favorite Spanish foods on the menu dancing in our heads.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Salamanca, Spain: Oct. 20 – 22, 2018

Photo Salamanca

Salamanca University

We’re headed to “The Golden City.” We still have a few more days before we meet Big A* in Madrid, so Salamanca seems like a good place to stop on the way; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s also a university town.

We’ve read about the fact that the sandstone used to construct the buildings is exclusive to this region and gives off a caramel/yellow tint, but to actually see the buildings glow when the sun shines on them is amazing. That coupled with its cleanliness makes this city something special.

Known as the Spanish version of Oxford, Salamanca University dates back to 1218 making it the oldest in Spain and the fourth oldest in the world. It gives the city a lively, fun and energetic spirit. We marvel at its Renaissance architecture as we search for “La Rana de la Suerte” (the good luck frog); legend has it that if a student can find the single carved frog within the many carvings on the façade, they will pass all their exams.

Of the two Cathedrals, the old Cathedral was initially built in the 12thcentury and has the distinction of being one of the oldest constructed buildings in the world. To be standing among the ornate carvings and the frescoes dating back so many thousands of years is sometimes hard to fathom.

Considered one of Spain’s most beautiful plazas, Plaza Mayor is a welcome respite from our exploring. All day long, people gather to eat, drink, people watch and listen to the musicians. The public square most probably hasn’t changed much since the 18thcentury; it is tranquil each morning and crescendos to a party atmosphere by nightfall.

The Room Mate Hotel Vega is in a great location near the Plaza Mayor and turns out to be a good choice. Not too expensive, it offers a boutique feel with its red, white and black contemporary décor.

For some reason, we are too hungry to wait until 8 p.m. for dinner and settle on enjoying “dunch” each day, my term for the meal between lunch and dinner. My favorite is the paella which combines all of my favorites: rice flavored with chicken broth and saffron, chicken, pork, shrimp, clams and scallops.

With just enough time to figure out how to get to the walkway and picturesque gardens that are majestically perched above the city, we agree that Salamanca was well worth the stop and has cut our travel time to Madrid to only two and ½ hours by bus.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cas of Characters” on the “About” page.

Holy Toledo, What a Wedding!

Photo Holy Toledo

The bride and groom surveying the Kentucky landscape.

It was their special day and they wanted it to epitomize who they were. My lovely niece and her charming beau invited parents, siblings and their best pals to the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky for their wedding ceremony. As rock climbers, they were unfazed by the “over the river and through the woods” hike to the final destination, but my sister-in-law/mother of the bride was already sure that whether she chose to hike or take the ski lift, it would be with eyes shut tightly.

The groom stood on a boulder and announced the day’s agenda. Guests were invited to say a few words and, before long, there wasn’t “a dry eye in the house.” A close friend prepared to be the celebrant by taking an online course and beautifully blended the traditional vows with the bride and groom’s loving and personal promises to each other.

As befitting the occasion, a large log cabin was rented for the weekend. Two foodie families were also joined together that weekend and took turns grilling gourmet meals. The weather smiled down on them as they enjoyed the magnificent terrain during the day, the bonfires at night and each others’ company.

We are among the 75 guests invited to a reception at the Botanical Gardens in Toledo, Ohio. We follow the path from the parking lot and soon find ourselves in the middle of 60 acres of tranquility. The reception is held in a room with big windows that overlook the sculpture garden. My excitement level, extremely high when attending any wedding, is heightened by the fact that my siblings and their children will be all together for the first time in years. This giddiness combined with the first view of the room’s décor overwhelms me.

As I hug and kiss my way around the room, I can’t help but notice out of the corner of my eye that everyone is gathering around the tables and commenting. I find out that the floral arrangements are origami paper flowers planted in edible dirt made up of chocolate covered acai berries in homemade baskets, all created by the bride. The bride’s bouquet is made of natural sola wooden flowers, hand dyed in shades of blush pink and Champagne. Lovely handmade gifts are also on display, such as painted wooden plaques designed by the groom’s sister.

This is all too much for me and I sit down, hoping the lightheaded feeling will pass. Thoughts of projects past begin to creep into my mind and each disaster begins to unfold as if it were yesterday.

The excitement of my first home economics project at age 12 that took a turn for the worst when a 24-hour dry cleaners had to be located (not easy back then) in order to remove the white chalk that was usually used on the underside of the garment. With memories of previous sewing skills, (when wrestling, the sleeves on the pajamas I made for my siblings would inexplicably fall off), it took all I had to walk the runway at the fashion show, fingers crossed all the way that I’d still have a skirt on as I exited. The family promise I made to never to use Crazy Glue again when I accidentally glued my 2 fingers together. And, the family intervention, necessary when I insisted on sewing the hem of Big A’s* grade school pants twice in one week; somehow attaching them to our bed quilt as I sat sewing and then, when the hems fell out during recess, causing Big A to topple over onto half of the kickball team, creating turmoil in the nurse’s office.

A concerned family member notices me and brings me a beverage, which is so delicious that it startles me out of my trance. It’s a rosemary Paloma, an amazing concoction of rosemary simple syrup (homemade by the groom), tequila, grapefruit juice and seltzer. Also offered is a Kentucky Mule (the bride’s jalapeño simple syrup recipe, cucumbers and bourbon), watermelon mint iced tea and apple cinnamon iced tea.

I am now picking up a pattern and learn that both families have worked together to create today’s menu and that everything is homemade: the wine, the beer, the pickles, the rolls, the salads, the beans, the wedding cake (lemon cake with blueberry filling and a lemon basil butternut icing), the chicken wings (3 flavors) and the brisket that the groom’s dad tended all night while sleeping next to his smoker. I am sure that Martha Stewart would be as impressed with this event as I was the day she instructed us all to begin a recipe by collecting cranberries from our cranberry bog.

I am full, both of food and emotions, as I look around and marvel at all the happiness and love in this room. I don’t want the weekend to end and don’t want to let go of this moment. Then, I remember that, just like a good recipe, life is meant to be savored, and when the last taste is gone, it spurs us on to create again.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

Sunday in Milwaukee  

Photo Sunday in Milwaukee

Every time we visit Big A* we try to mix it up a bit, except for the $16.95 lobster lunch at the Milwaukee Public Market. That we don’t mind doing repeatedly.

We walk to Birch & Butcher from Big A’s apartment. It’s clean lines and Zen atmosphere along with the colored pencils and the page to color reminds us that this is what Sundays are for. We all agree that sharing is the right thing to do. There’s nothing better than starting the day with a lox platter (a homemade everything bagel with smoked trout, cream cheese, charred tomato, red onion jam and capers), rosemary biscuits (topped with sausage, charcuterie gravy and a poached egg) and pulled pork shoulder (with polenta, roasted mushrooms and a poached egg). Just as I wonder which banquette would be a great spot for a nap, it is time to head to our next stop.

None of us know why we never visited Villa Terrace before. Designed by renowned architect David Adler, it was originally the home of Lloyd and Agnes Smith and is now a decorative arts museum. Majestically sitting above Lake Michigan in all its Mediterranean splendor, it’s hard to believe that the home and its award-winning gardens are in the middle of the city.

We each find a favorite daydreaming spot outside, then strain our necks in order to see more of the neighbors’ lavish homes. We peruse every nook and cranny, not wanting to miss any of the family’s history, the art collections or the amazing wrought iron pieces.

What I didn’t expect was what happened next. A Korean drummer was invited to give a presentation that day and before I knew it, I was a part of her drum circle, banging to the rhythm on my instrument of choice along with others. As she collected the instruments, she told us about a recent trip to her homeland and how events such as these are such a simple way to bring people together. I leave with a spring in my step and am ready for our next stop.

The Third Ward, a historic warehouse district, has really grown into itself since Big A was in college at Marquette University. It’s always fun to walk around and visit the unique shops (though I’ve yet to make a purchase, my favorite, called Shoo,sells handmade shoes). It’s hot and 5 o’clock somewhere, so we decide to stop at the new Journeyman Hotel, take a look around and wind up at their rooftop bar.

With watches synchronized, we decide to change for dinner, then meet again. We head to Harbor House, early so we can sit outside on their Adirondack chairs and have a cocktail while we take in the view of Lake Michigan. Just as we get comfortable, the fog rolls in and we can hardly see our hands in front of our faces. As if by magic, the fog suddenly lifts when our drinks arrive and we laugh when the waiter says it was all part of the plan. We dine on raw oysters, scallops, halibut and even throw in a veal chop for good measure.

It’s been another successful visit. We’ve spent time with Big A and eaten our way around Milwaukee, with just enough time to plan our next adventures together

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Hindu Wedding Adventure

Photo Hindu Wedding

My henna dried to a rich reddish brown color; beautiful!

Take my advice: If you are ever invited to a Hindu wedding, accept the invitation immediately. And if it’s in Portland, Oregon, plan to spend a week there.

My sister-in-law and brother-in-law are famous for their event planning, which usually includes a weeklong celebration for a family event. Lucky for us, it’s been in cities that we’ve yet to visit. Our latest family adventure was in Portland, Oregon for my niece’s wedding to a lovely young man of Sri Lankan descent.

The Haldi Ceremony

We are honored to be invited to the lovely home of the groom’s parents and observe this important pre-wedding event. On arrival, we remove our shoes and place them with the more than 50 other pairs on the floor of their grand entrance. The living room furniture has been removed and the wood floor is covered with colorful quilts. The parents and siblings of the bride and groom all take part in an elaborate ceremony conducted by a Hindu priest.

We learn that “haldi” is the Hindi word for turmeric. The women of the family had prepared a special paste of turmeric and herbs. The groom is led to a chair in the middle of the room and one by one, family and friends apply the paste to the groom’s skin. The older relatives lovingly pat on the cream while the younger family members jokingly smear it all over him. Its purpose is to cleanse body and soul. I am also told that because of its antibacterial properties, the groom has just received the equivalent of a $200 facial.

A delicious catered lunch follows and though I am usually a fussy eater, I enjoy every bite of the Indian specialties, along with the interesting conversations with friends and family from as far away as Sri Lanka and England. We thank our hosts and bid our new friends goodbye until the evening’s festivities.

The Sangeet Ceremony

I am here early in order to be first in line to receive a henna application from one of the two artists in attendance. The 300 plus guests have not yet arrived, so Carmen and I have time to chat. She tells me how she became a henna artist and that she mixes her own paste using lavender, known for its calming scent.

The DJ quickly gets the crowd on its feet by handing out colorful sticks and lining us up in a series of long lines facing each other. The Bollywood music starts and we learn a dance, tapping sticks with the person across from us before we move to the left, skip one person and continue.

The “Sangeet” is a celebration of the wedding to come in order to relish in the happiness and joy surrounding the bride and groom and join the two families together. We delight in watching the dance routines performed by family and friends in honor of the special couple and tasting the Indian street food that is served.

The Baraat

We are up early, standing outside the hotel where today’s festivities will take place. In a few minutes, the groom will arrive on a white horse. In times gone by, the groom’s wedding procession would travel to the bride’s village accompanied by friends and family. Today, led by a drummer and taped music, we all dance and sing as we escort him around the block. The look on the faces of the people in the coffee shop as we pass is priceless.

The Hindu Wedding

In the ballroom, a canopy of flowing sheer fabric and pastel flowers sits above elaborate gold gilded chairs. In the center are the items that the two Hindu priests will utilize for the ceremony. On each guest’s chair, is a detailed explanation of what will take place (which we are very grateful for), along with a small, brightly wrapped package containing a homemade cake. It will go well with the hot and cold beverages served. The event is a fusion of colorful saris worn by many of the guests.

The groom looks resplendent in his turban and matching gold and ruby red embroidered sherwani, a long, fitted coat. Only the bride can top this and she does. Her regal lehenga, an elaborately embroidered red and gold, two-piece skirt and top with a sheer sash is magnificent. The intricate henna designs on her feet and hands, the red “bindi” (a dot on her forehead), and the many bracelets that dangle up her arms have transformed my niece into a Hindu princess.

I am transfixed by the many lovely rituals that are performed; the look on the groom’s face when he sees his bride for the first time, hidden at first behind a white cloth; the flower garlands the bride and groom place on each other to proclaim acceptance of each other; the tying together of their scarves to signify their unity; the seven steps that they take together around the sacred fire, each representing marriage promises to each other.

As sacred fires sometimes do, its smoke triggers the hotel smoke alarm. The shrieking sound does nothing to deter the ceremony and the happy couple are gifted with photos of the firemen as part of their wedding album. A lovely lunch of Indian delights follows in a number of beautifully appointed rooms. We make our way back to our hotel and rest up for the next event.

The Western Wedding.

We’ve all changed into yet another outfit and we now congregate in a flower festooned room complete with soft music serenading us. The bridesmaids have changed from their saris to cocktail dresses and the groomsmen are now in suits and ties, rather than their sherwanis. The groom is dashing in his suit and bow tie and, once again, the bride steals the show in her elegant lace, blush colored gown and simple flower holding up her long hair on one side.

The Maid of Honor acts as the celebrant and enhances the ceremony with personal tidbits about the bride and groom, as only a friend can do. At one point, she catches us off guard by reminding us that this year marked the 50thanniversary of the landmark civil rights decision by the Supreme Court to invalidate laws prohibiting interracial marriage; a reminder that sparks emotion on this special day. The bride and groom’s vows give us a peek into their relationship, their promises to each other sweetly declared for all to hear.

We are ushered downstairs to another beautiful room for cocktails and hors d’ oeuvres, then later, we travel upstairs to a spectacular ballroom for dinner and dancing. In between, family and friends of the bride and groom welcome us, toast and even sing to the bride and groom. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law are tonight’s hosts. They were an integral part of every event and I marvel at how they both glowed, maneuvering through fabulous wardrobe changes and protocols as if they were experts. We dance the night away and make sure we hug all our new friends as the evening comes to a close.

The henna has since faded, but the coming together of two families and two cultures in the spirit of love will long be remembered.

 

 

 

Thanks Austin, for Inviting me to South by Southwest

Photo SXSW

I still can’t believe that NASA forgot to mention to me that this space telescope would be at the 2017 SXSW.

How can we live in Austin and not experience South by Southwest? I fall asleep doing some positive thinking as to how that might happen. The very next morning, a new pal texts me with a link to free events and says to be sure not to miss them!

South by Southwest (SXSW) is a yearly event held every March in Austin, Texas. It is known for its music and film festivals and conferences that focus on what’s next in music, film, culture and technology. People travel here from all-around the world and proudly wear the badges around their neck that they have paid anywhere from $825 to $1250 for.

As if the city isn’t already alive on any given day, during SXSW the excitement elevates. Pop-up events are held all over the city, then gone the next day, only to appear at a new location. Music is playing everywhere, there is a great vibe on the streets and you never know what experience awaits you around each corner.

JC* is always up for an adventure, so Mr. Wiz* and I invite her along. We are glad we get an early start because there is a lot out there for us to explore:

  • A young man dressed in an authentic sailing outfit from 1845 invites us to view a premiere of the new AMC show The Terror. As we enter the shipping container and seat ourselves in a boat, I am wondering what good could come from a ship called the HMS Terror.
    All of a sudden, it’s dark and the screens all-around us feature excerpts of the thrilling story of a British Royal Naval expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. If the sounds and sights don’t make us feel as if we are really there, the cold air blowing and the snow falling down on us really does!
  • Feeling like we are in need of a respite, we opt to visit the Yonomi Townhouse next. There is nothing like touring a smart home and learning about all the gadgets that can make our lives easier or just more bizarre (a light show in your living room?!) after visiting their complimentary open bar.
  • The sounds of a DJ lead us to our next stop. We are invited to have a MAC makeup artist touch us up, then head onto lavish photo sets decorated like a private jet and a yacht and told to pose as if we are high-rolling imposters, just like the new Bravo show The Imposters.

We can’t stop now; we’re feeling very trendy, so we’re off to the Wellness Expo:

  • I won’t lie to you, I am very fussy about food and politely decline anything that is being offered. Touted as scientifically modulated, energy healing, fueling body, mind and spirit and clean eating, I wonder why the samples are all mostly khaki green in color.
  • Though we could not convince Mr. Wiz* to enter the PeaceBox with us, JC and I did share the experience. We first choose from one of eight temporary tattoos called “Mindful Marks.” These are placed on us (arm or hand) as a reminder of our meditation intention. I must say, it really brought out the latent rebellious streak in me. I wore it proudly, missed it when it washed away a few days later and wondered deep down inside if I actually might be a candidate for a tattoo.
    Oy vey, not another shipping container! This time though, we are promised that this one is actually a studio that teaches meditation and mindfulness techniques. Once the headphones are placed on our ears, we close our eyes and relax. After 15 minutes, we rejoin the world feeling totally renewed.
  • We finish the day with a visit to Bulletproof, a cutting-edge food and beverage company. The oxygen bar is a new experience. It is said to remove toxins from the body and strengthen the immune system. If nothing else, it makes me feel energized and invigorated, which I now blame for my decision to try the Vibe Plate.
    Signing the release should have been the hint that I needed that this was not your grandmother’s way to increase blood flow. The last thing I hear as I step on to a large square of metal is “…If you experience dizziness, just bend your knees…” The on button is triggered and it activates “my natural reflexive response to vibrations 25 to 50 times per second.” Knees bent, I signal for an immediate stop to “the engagement of my muscles in a consistent and controlled manner.”

I can only attribute my heightened state of light headedness for accepting the sample of coffee with butter that is handed to me next. I don’t even drink coffee and am not sure that anyone has the right to drink butter, so I’m still perplexed as to how it all happened.

Deciding it best to call it a day and end our SXSW adventure, I stroll away with visions of the new edgier version of myself dancing in my still woozy head. It is the shouts from Mr. Wiz and JC that bring me back to reality. And remind me that I am walking the wrong way home.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

They Don’t Supersize in Spain (And Other Extra-Large Observations)

Photo Spain

I am a Hispanophile. I have a strong affinity for Spain and all things Spanish. It is not only part of my heritage, but it’s also become my fascination.

When I visit, it always takes me a few days to fall back into the rhythm of the culture. There is a lovely, peaceful feeling there of having all the time in the world. Life has an elegance to it.

Food is considered something to be savored, rather than supersized. Meals are served in small courses, always with dessert. “Tapas” (Spanish for “hors d’ oeuvres”) are typically not large servings either. This offers a way to taste, but not to overdue (unlike the U.S., obesity is not a national problem there).

Nothing is ever eaten on the run. I’ve been mesmerized watching just how slowly a Spaniard can actually sip an espresso style coffee, making it last while reading an entire newspaper. You never see anyone running down the street with a to-go container in hand (are they even an option)?

Each meal is a gastronomic experience and if it seems as if Spaniards are eating and drinking all day and all night, that’s because they are. Here is a typical daily meal schedule:

Breakfast: Coffee and bread or pastry
Midmorning: Coffee and a quick bite.
2-3:30 p.m.:  Lunch is the main meal of the day. Most head home to eat during the
workweek; a nap (siesta) is optional.
Early Evening: A drink and/or tapas.
9:30-10 p.m.: Dinner is served (begins even later on weekends).
After Dinner: Nightcap anyone?

One evening, while enjoying cocktails at an outside cafe, I noticed a large family congregating. As each new member joined the group and received a kiss on each cheek, the circle was made larger to accommodate the newest arrival and the conversation didn’t miss a beat. The children played quietly next to the circle. You could sense the level of respect shown to the older family members, as everyone leaned over to hear what those wise sages were speaking about. When we passed by after dinner at midnight, the group was still there, now inside at a table, and did not look like they were heading home any time soon. This all took place on a weeknight, which made me wonder: doesn’t anyone around here have to go to work tomorrow?

I was told by a Spanish friend that what I had viewed was called a “sobremesa” (Spanish for “chatting over the remains of the meal”) and can sometimes last for hours. Spaniards tend to work to live (rather than live to work) and are very respectful of both their work time and their leisure time. Vacations are taken and time off is enjoyed.

In times past, townspeople would ride their horse and carriages up and down the main thoroughfare to see and be seen. The tradition continues today with the “paseo” (Spanish for “a leisurely stroll on a public walkway or boulevard”). It’s a lovely ritual, as people of all ages promenade and meet up with friends and family, stop for a drink, tapas or a sweet and chat. The plaza in each town’s center also brings people together and the impromptu live music creates a celebratory feeling.

There is an unspoken dress code that does not include sweatsuits or sneakers. You can’t help but notice that every man, woman and child is smartly dressed, donning a stylishly tied scarf (very European chic). Even the style of the baby carriages are impressive, as they chauffeur their well-dressed passengers around, all decked out in their little leather shoes that match their outfits and hats.

It was while walking the Camino that I had the chance to glimpse into the daily rhythm of Spain’s smaller towns (the tiniest with a population of 18). The contentment shared by the townspeople made me question if maybe less is more. I began to learn to appreciate the abundance of simplicity, a concept that I hope to never forget.

Each time I say goodbye to Spain, I promise myself that I will try to incorporate another part of their lifestyle into my own and create my own version of the best of my both worlds.