Monday, October 31, 2011

He is probably a very good chef

Our favourite Friday night restaurant is an Italian place in the centre of Vienna and we go there every week when we are at home.

Mario is the host – Tony is the head waiter – it is usually fairly quiet on Friday nights as Mario does a lot of his business with large tourist groups who come during the week.

The food is excellent and the prices are – by Viennese standards – very good value indeed. In terms of value for money it is probably the best restaurant in Vienna 1010.

So it is usually a very quiet night – we never book – we just wander in there and get the very best attention from Mario and Tony.

On Friday night we went with Gwenyth and it was apparent when we arrived that it was not a normal Friday night.

The restaurant was packed and Mario looked unusually tense and harassed. He ushered us to the head table - which was the only free table - marked as reserved - and set for five - and there we sat – unattended – for about 10 minutes while Mario and Tony scampered around the packed restaurant.

Finally we were attended to and Mario said that he had only two reservations for the night – the rest of the seething horde were just walk ins.

Well we finally – and it was a struggle - ordered mineral water and aperitifs - and from there on it was a complete gold-plated, nut-encrusted, cinnamon dusted goat fuck.

We saw from the menu – it had a special insert - that there was a new Chef – Pietro. There was a picture of Pietro on the colour insert – and we saw a lot of him that evening – in fact he was rarely out of our sight.

Pietro spent more time in the restaurant than he did in the kitchen. He seemed to spend a lot of time arguing with Mario.

Mario was very patient and always took him by the elbow or arm - and steered him back to the kitchen. Pietro spent a lot of time shaking his middle finger at Mario. I don’t know what this meant – other than anguish for Mario.

There was also a new waiter – we did not learn his name. He was not very good and Mario spent his spare time – when he was not with Pietro – with the new waiter – either arguing or shouting.

Every couple of minutes Pietro came out of the kitchen and talked to the patrons. Occasionally he came down to the bar and had animated discussions with Mario.

We finally received our entrees and then waited – and waited. After about an hour – on one of his many forays into the restaurant Pietro visited us – banged on our table and asked ‘va bene?’

I answered yes it was indeed going sensationally well and could be improved only by us having our dinner – but I said this to his back as he was already lurching back to his kitchen - stopping only at the bar long enough to down a glass of white wine.

Mario said that Pietro was trying out some new wines to go with his new dishes. If only he would try one of his new dishes on us.

Then the new waiter arrived again – took our bread away and asked us if we wanted Dolce. We said we would like our main course first - and he went off to talk to Mario.

Shortly after this a hot and sweaty Mario visited us – with more bread - and said that our dinner was on its way. He said this with a note of hope in his voice and a glance towards the kitchen.

He paused to pour himself two glasses of wine from the bottle of wine at the table next to ours and downed each of these in one gulp. The wine was behind the table so the patrons did not see their bottle depleted. He was obviously thirsty and in great need.  

Shortly after this the new waiter dropped a full tray of wine glasses that he was attempting to insert into the dishwasher and this occupied Mario for some time - during which our dinner arrived – to the sound of broken glass being collected.

My dinner was hot and delicious. Cate and Gwenyth’s dinners were stone cold – but also delicious.  

Mario did not charge us for these. Pietro is probably a good chef. I hope it is quieter next week - and that Pietro has finished testing the wines. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sissi likes Gouda

Cycling through Holland - Badger at the rear in red

At the moment Sissi’s favourite cheese is Grana Padano. She just loves it and as soon as I start slicing it for my world famous Rucola and Grana Padano salad she goes berserk.

Last night I tried her on Gouda and she loves the aged one which Gwenyth bought. It will be interesting to she if she likes the flavoured ones that Cate and I acquired – particularly the nettle one.

If so this will be a big help as I am finding the mountain of cheese in the kitchen a bit disturbing and may have to hide some in the basement until we can all – Sissi included – make some progress.

One day when we were in Amsterdam we visited Delft by train and naturally we went to the Delft shop to look at the pottery.

We had intended to buy a small piece as a memento but in fact fell in love with a very old, large jar that was made in 1889 - and on which the dog had been broken off the lid - and been stuck back on. You can hardly notice it unless you actually look at the lid.

It was not really very expensive – and will never be worth very much because it has been repaired – but we love the idea that it has already been around for so long and we know when it was made and who painted it. (P.L. Dijkman)

So we bought it and have put it in what we hope will be a Sissi-proof part of the house – but she is a very resourceful cat so who knows.

The Schanigarten vanished while we were away – and this for us always signals the start of winter. Daylight savings ends on Sunday so it is firewood time – or what passes for firewood in this household – and this year I am not risking my ribs so Jules my firewood man is going to have to do all the work himself.

The time before last when we were away Mrs. Moneypenny was also away so we had to rely on Jules to look after the cats.

Well he succeeded to the extent that they did not die - but the apartment was a shambles – he changed the wiring on the TV and stereo and changed all the settings on the air conditioning. There was cat food everywhere and the litter tray had not been emptied properly.

My friend Yum Cha – who also called in when we were away – said that there was evidence that young women (shriek!) were being entertained here. Heavens!

So – unsurprisingly – Jules was more interested in shagging his girlfriend in a penthouse apartment than feeding the cats – so Mrs. Moneypenny gave him a good talking to - and we expect better results in the future. There is  no reason he cannot do both – with diligence the cats only take about half an hour a day.

But he is going to have to move a lot of faux-wood to get back into my good books.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

It's pronounced Howda

Kinderdijk - Moving the cap on a mill to catch the wind
Windmills are in a row because each one moves water just a little way - from one canal to the next. So a row of them will move the water from the Polder to a series of canals – each one a little bit higher than the one below it. A Dutch person could explain it better.

We are now back in Vienna. Well – Gwenyth and I are. Cate was back for half an hour but had to go straight to Moscow from Vienna airport and will not be back until Friday night.

We were however very lucky that Cate was with us at the check-in in Amsterdam and did not have to fly direct to Moscow because without her illustrious status on Austrian Airlines we would have had no chance of getting our bags through without excess baggage charges – laden as they were with booty from Bruges and Holland.

We had gone no more than 100 metres from our hotel on the first morning in Bruges when Cate became transfixed by some crystal candlesticks in a shop window.

These were at a price which made her think they must have been made of plastic – accustomed as we are to Viennese extortion – but the owner – who for some reason was wearing what looked like a grey plastic squirrel on his head – demonstrated to us that they were in fact the finest quality German crystal and Cate was so pleased with this she bought three pairs – of varying sizes – each weighing about 10 kilos.

There were a number of less weighty additions to our baggage along the way but in the middle of Holland – temporarily forgetting about the candlesticks – and in a moment of cheese induced insanity – we bought an enormous quantity of Gouda.

Indeed the most delicious Gouda cheese (pronounced Howda) we have ever tasted. Not that we are experts but this had all sorts of flavours including pepper and nettle.

Well we just had to have it and hang the consequences - so we bought about ten kilos.

We realised – getting off the Elodie – that we had a problem – when we could not get our bags up the stairs and had to be rescued by Michel and Sander. I was imagining a scenario where a taxi driver grabbed one of our bags and tore the handle off and threw it into the taxi – leaving the bag sitting on the footpath.  

At Schipol we were well over the weight limit for mere mortals but Cate’s status saved us and we now have enough Gouda to last until we vomit at the mere thought of Gouda. 

My knees have recovered to the point where I can now walk up and down stairs without crying and my bum is almost back to normal.

The most danger we were in on the whole trip was from bicycles in Amsterdam.  They are absolutely lethal for newcomers and are silent and deadly. At night almost none has any lights and they are upon you like a Lion upon a Gazelle. I escaped death by a whisker on more than one occasion. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Now I know why Windmills are in rows

We straggled into Amsterdam on Saturday afternoon. I would like to tell you that we got better as the week went on - but we were all completely knackered by the time we reached Elodie for the last time.

There were sighs – and some sobs – of relief – as we clattered onto the docks in the centre of Amsterdam to be greeted by our Skipper Michel – and dragged our aching bums up the gangplank. It was not just me who was feeling the strain – almost everyone was doing it tough by the end.

When we had our final dinner together they asked us what the highlight of the tour was, I said for me that it was reaching the Elodie each evening. The last 10 kilometres each day were always the toughest and were always excruciating.

There were no young people on this tour – and I was not the oldest by a long way – so some people had a harder time than I did – but I am sure no one had knees as bad as mine and I did have to take one morning off during the week to give them a bit of a break.

However – it was a sensational trip and we will certainly never see a country more beautiful – or windier – or wetter - than Holland. 

I finally discovered what a Polder is and how Windmills really work – and why they are in rows.  I sure waited a long time to find that out.

Holland is bird and duck heaven. And I have never seen so many birds in sanctuaries. We took hundreds of photos but many of them were taken in a hurry because if you let the pack get away you could not catch them again without an effort that would damn near kill you.

In answer to the question as to why in October. Well – last year we cycled in Italy in August and nearly died of heat exhaustion. Determined not to repeat this mistake we thought we would go later in the year when it would be cooler.

I did not realise that in Holland at the end of October the conditions would be like they are in Lapland. I mean – in my bag I had sandals and shorts and my swimming trunks! Good grief – what was I thinking?

We survived only by putting on each day all the clothes that we brought with us. I had luckily brought a beanie and gloves which I have never taken off. What I really needed was the gear I am preparing for Norway in January.

Anyway – here we are in Amsterdam – now in a hotel. The hotel is excellent. This time I got the hotel just right – the location however is another matter. But it is only a 20 minute tram ride from the city – or we could hire a bike. Yeh right!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Apparently Holland is beautiful

Zierikzee Netherlands
There is no Internet at all on the boat. We are staying at a small Dutch port that has WiFi.

For the last four days we have cycled 50 kilometres every day – mostly into fierce headwinds. Apparently the Dutch only have headwinds.

The weather is freezing. Sometimes it rains.

I am told that the Dutch countryside is beautiful but I am solely focused on getting back to the boat before death overtakes me.

I focus on staying on the wheel of the person in front of me. I grit my teeth and knees and pedal like a loon. 

I think our tour leader was a former Dutch Olympic cyclist. In the morning she takes off and leaves a trail of gasping cyclists in her wake. She has thighs of steel.

She stops every now and then to enable us to catch up and we flop sobbing in heaps at the side of the road.

After 10 minutes she boots us back onto our bikes and we have to try and keep up with her because without her we are finished – Holland consisting mainly of water and dykes - and the tour leader has the only map.

The food is sensational as we have a real chef who cooks gourmet food. His name is Sander and he is only 26 but has cooked all over the world. I am usually too tired to eat but Cate mashes mine up and feeds it to me.

Cate is taking lots of photos so that when we get back to Vienna I can see where we have been.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

No forest of death so far this year

I am OK without the flap

Tomorrow we start our trip by travelling to Bruges where we spend two days before boarding the Elodie on Sunday.

As usual I have been left in charge of booking the hotels but this time – at least in Bruges – I can blame the Bicycle Tour people because I am just using the hotel they recommended. What could go wrong with that?

Well I make my usual disclaimer about blogging. It will be my intention to blog – but things happen. Last time on our bike and boat trip in Italy we were supposed to have an internet connection in every port – but rarely did – and Captain Pugwash showed no interest whatsoever in our desire to contact the outside world. We shall see. We are in the middle of Europe so it should not be too difficult. Yeh right!

Now none of us has done any training whatsoever for this and the last time Cate and I had a bike ride in Vienna was about two months ago - so the first two days could be a bit tough – but we have our padded bike seats with us and will take Vegemite for breakfast - and to rub on sore muscles.

I have been trying to teach Monika how to use the cat door. This is necessary now that the colder weather has arrived because I sometimes have to keep the flap on the door. It will not be too long before I have to take the door off altogether and keep the terrace doors closed.

Anyway, Monika cannot use the cat door so I usually leave the flap off. If the flap is on she will watch Sissi come and go through the flap but simply cannot get the hang of it. I am not blaming her. Muffin was 19 years old and could never use a cat door. And Muffin was intellectually gifted. Sort of.

But I have to put the cat flap on while we are away in case of inclement weather - which means that if the weather is sunny Monika will be stuck inside. There are plenty of sunny spots in the apartment but she likes to lie on the table on the terrace.

But the lessons have been a complete failure. So if anyone has any bright ideas please let me know. (She won’t watch YouTube). Her problem is that – because of her background – she is very timid and is not willing to push the flap hard enough to get it moving.

Which reminds me – I have to wrap up the terrace plants as soon as I get back. When I bought them the man at Dehner said they would grow like Topsy all Spring and Summer and then would need to have their roots wrapped up for winter.

Well they grew not at all until about a month ago when they suddenly shot up about 20 cm – so now I have to wrap them in blankets until the end of winter.

I can deal with that. By this time of the year I am normally looking at a forest of death on the terrace. I now have two bright and healthy things (I have forgotten what they are called) looking just wonderful. And – miraculously – Sissi has not nested in either of them since they arrived.

Wrap them in blankets? I will give them hot water bottles each night if it will get them through winter and I don’t have to go through a re-potting experience next spring.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Vegemite has arrived

Felix and Sven

Well Gwenyth arrived – but without her bags. Of course this caused a major panic because she was carrying supplies of Vegemite and Jameson.

But all is well because the bags arrived later in the afternoon and we are now well stocked up with Vegemite for the next year and have at least enough Jameson for Christmas and Norway.

Tonight we went to our new favourite restaurant which is Artner and we have been there a number of times recently. We get these fetishes about restaurants and Artner is the recipient of the latest fetish.

But – without doubt - the best restaurant in Vienna is Ein Wiener Salon. We have always loved it but we rarely go there because it is a smoking restaurant.

We were walking back from our usual Friday night dining place - Al Borgo  and on the spur of the moment - as we were walking past Ein Weiner Salon - and it looked so good – and we had such good memories - we thought we would brave the smoke for one time.

I went in and asked Felix if he had a table for the Saturday night and he hesitated - and then asked his partner Sven - but we got in. There was a problem because a waiter was sick.

(Sven and Felix are gay. Sven is the Chef. Felix is the waiter and sous-chef. Both of them smoked.)

It was – as usual – sensational. I was particularly bold and told Felix that the reason we did not come more often was that we were both allergic to smoke. 

He did not react so I got nervous and apologised and said that I did not mean to offend.

Felix then said that he and Sven had got married a few months ago and that Sven had given up smoking – and that Felix had not – so that the whole business had turned into a Goat Thing and that now Sven had turned into the non-smoker from Hell.

Sounds like us.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I will nail it before we leave

Bagni di Lucca Italy 2010
I recently had a whole raft of blood tests – which I do every now and again – to make sure that there is nothing going drastically wrong with me – other than the migraine thing about which there is not much that I can do.

I had some stuff that worked for a while but now doesn’t so we are basically back where we started which is where we usually finish up. But it is where I expect to be because I really gave up on my migraines a long time ago and am convinced that there is nothing that can be done about them so I just have to bloody well get on with it.

I have spoken to many people whose migraines just disappear. I hope to be one of these. I have put my name down.

So I got a blood test order thing from Dr. Mordor in August but one thing led to another and then we had to go to Washington and Ireland and I got colds and things but last week I had the tests and a few days ago I trotted along to Dr. Mordor with the results.

He gave them a cursory glance and said that they were all good and that there was nothing to worry about and that it was very rare for him to see someone my age who did not have any problems with eating too much or drinking too much or with high cholesterol or something and he booted me out of his surgery with the usual farewell.  

Well he barely looked at them.

Now I am worrying that he has been reading my blog and that the results are actually awful and that I am on the way out and that he is punishing me for saying uncomplimentary things about him just because he never examines me. Well he does – after a fashion – but never from closer than five metres.

So I have these results – and I have looked at them and they mean nothing to me and I could try and find another doctor – but I have been trying to do that for three years without success – and I am not sure what to do.

So to take my mind off this I have started examining the Bruges to Amsterdam cycling plan to try to find the flaws in it. This trip starts on Friday and Gwenyth arrives from Australia on Wednesday.

She was nearly off to a very bad start because up until Sunday she was very confused and thought she was going to Norway. 

This is understandable because for the last six weeks she has been doing  a community project – working with Aboriginal communities in far North Queensland – and has had no contact with the outside world – so rushed back to Sydney and had a nearly disastrous brain scramble.

Fortunately she realised just before stuffing her suitcase full of winter clothes that she was going cycling – not trudging though ice and snow.

I know there is a fatal flaw in the trip – it’s just that I have not found it yet. My analysis will be detailed and forensic. I will nail it before we leave.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I will be taking the full five fifths - plus some extra

Badger near death in Lapland 

The redoubtable esbboston has suggested that one should take at least a fifth of one’s favourite alcoholic beverage to ease the pain of freezing to death in an icy cold environment.

As one who has damn near done that  – and now knows what it would feel like – I can assure esb that I will be taking a lot more than a fifth with me – it will be more like five fifths – and I will have a hip flask of Jameson wherever I go.

And as I have said before, I have been studying assiduously the survival skills of Bear Grylls and now know how to cut open and gut a reindeer to crawl inside it to keep warm, how to make a fire by rubbing two antlers over a pile of dried peat, how to outrun a polar bear – well you can’t actually outrun a Polar bear - you have to be able to run faster than the people you are with - and I have been training hard every day - stuff like that.

The harder thing on this occasion will be to survive the prices in Norway which everybody says – and from what I can see so far have no doubt is true – is the most expensive country on the planet.

This is another reason to take alcohol – particularly on the boat. The boat people have taken the trouble to publish the prices they charge for drinks – I imagine so that they prevent people from going into a catatonic state and needing medical treatment when they get their first bar bill.

You can get a glass of wine from £7.70 ($12) or a bottle of wine from £37 ($57). A glass of beer on the other hand is a snip at £6.60 ($10).

At those prices I am guessing there will not be any chance of us getting drunk and falling overboard.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

I loathe monasteries and castles

Berlin - Reichstag
I do things much more slowly and carefully these days because I have been responsible for some colossal cock ups  - some of which I have admitted to in my blogs – and a couple of which were so awful that I have never confessed to anyone - simply because they were so FUBAR as to defy the imagination. 

I will only say that it is not possible to leave a place before you have arrived in it - and to try to do so can be expensive in terms of air fares and pre-paid hotels - and that if you get the checking out date of your hotel wrong you may find your belongings in Glad bags in the hotel cellar when you try to return to your room late at night.

So now I do spreadsheets and work slowly and carefully  through the issues – which does not always guarantee success because Cate gives me some significant challenges.

These will usually involve tacking a seemingly impossible task onto an already difficult problem – but the trap will not be sprung until I am well into the planning stages and she will say – ‘and by the way I want to go to the Benedictine Monastery in Plob’.

Plob of course will be nowhere near where we are going so I will need to develop a cunning plan to get us to Plob and back on track – bearing in mind that there are planes, trains and automobiles already involved – and that bookings have already been made.

And when we get to the Benedictine Monastery at Plob it will look – to me – like every other Benedictine Monastery I have ever seen in my life – and I have seen possibly 10,000 – just as every castle looks much the same to me – but Cate will savour every morsel of it and will take lots of pictures – and that’s all that really matters. I loathe castles.
Kirkenes Snow Hotel

However – Norway has proved to particularly tricky as we are taking a series of planes, trains and then a boat up the coast to Kirkenes where it will be very dark and where we will be staying overnight in the Snow Hotel.

We may also see the Northern Lights which we missed out on last year in Lapland. We will be much further North than we were last year – which hardly seems possible – but I have checked Google maps – which would not lie about something like this. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I am not going too close to the edge this time

Jewish Memorial Berlin 

I have been up to my ears planning our trip to Norway in January so have been distracted from blogging. As you know we have this fetish about going to the coldest places on earth at the coldest times of the year in Europe - just because we come from a very hot country and now love wallowing about in snow and ice.

In Australia in the run up to Christmas the stores are full of what they think are Christmas trees and every store has a jolly Santa decked out in red and white - with a big white beard - and every store – and every shopping centre – and every car park – and every radio station – plays Christmas carols from the 1st of October until the 25th  December – all in the name of selling as much Christmas crap as possible.

On Christmas day – at least in the past – Australians sat down – in 40° heat – to tables groaning with mighty roasts and baked potatoes and pumpkins and traditional English puddings. Spare me!

In more recent times some sanity has crept into our behavior in Australia and we have started to realise that we are not in fact English or European and that it does not snow in Australia at Christmas and that we should actually behave like it is 40° outside – and not eat mountains of hot food.

We discovered when we got to Vienna that it is not like that at all here. There is no Santa Claus and there is not nearly as much crap as there is in Australia. The actually do have white Christmases here and do not need to spray ‘Santa Snow’ on the shop windows to try to fool people into buying their schlock. Most Viennese have not heard of Cliff Richard – do not own copies of his Christmas CDs – and do not play them endlessly in stores from October to December. It is bliss.

Now Cate and Gwenyth and I have perhaps overreacted because it is actually quite cool in Vienna and there is possibly no need for us to go to – and indeed inside the Arctic Circle – but we like to live life on the edge because - unlike some of our fellow travellers - we are of the firm view that this is all there is and we need to make the most of it.

And as my son once said to me ‘Papa – if you are not living life on the edge – you are taking up too much room.’ I think it was my son – it may have been my dealer.

I do not plan to go as close to the edge as I did last year when I fell off that damn Husky sled and broke five ribs and then collapsed with hypothermia after the reindeer sled ride before we actually collided with a reindeer on the ice covered road on the way back to our wilderness lodge where the outside temperate was -27° and if you faltered feeling your way through snow from your sleeping hut to the mess hut you died in your tracks.  

But anyway planning the Norway trip is a task that is taxing me to the limit. Cate worked on it for some months before shoveling it all over to me a week ago saying to was too hard and telling me it was now my job.

It involves boats, at least three different airplanes, three different trains and a snow hotel. The complication is that Cate won’t tell me some of the key ingredients – like everything she actually wants to do and the precise dates she wants to do them. This is so that I have a challenge to keep me busy while she is in Turkey.