Friday, December 31, 2010

Buon Natale!

I realize that technically this is a blog about Croatia, but the truth be known it is about our nearly year-long trip as a whole. So, I hope you don’t mind if I digress and talk about our trip to Italy. Lucia and I realized early on that we simply couldn’t go to the U.S. for Christmas. If we did, where to visit? Phoenix, Austin, and L.A. all have family that could not be ignored. The default solution? Italy!

We had originally thought about Rome for Christmas and Naples for the New Year, but my OLD friend Bob Thompson said forget about Naples for now; well, certainly for the New Year. A few years back, Lucia and I had traveled the north, starting with Lago di Como and then moved south. We had the fullest intentions of ending the trip in Rome, but Verona, Venice, Padua, Ferrara, Orvieto, Assisi, and Siena slowed us w-a-y down—as it should be—so we never made Rome. The household promise was to do so someday.

One assumption about our trip made it just that much more interesting—the bride doesn’t fly well, so somehow I ended up promising we’d take the train. To tell the truth it worked out reasonably well. We took the overnight train from Zagreb to Venice, which was maybe seven hours. It was goofy fun, because we decided to spend a few extra dollars (Kunas? Euros?) to get a sleeper. Check out the pics. We got into Venice about 7.30, took a vaporetto to our hotel and then camped out for a day. It was raining and we had been to Venice before, but…well, if you have a ‘bucket list’, I suggest you be sure that Venice is on it. We wandered for a day and, of course, had a wonderful dinner. The water from the canals was washing up into the streets. We all know the place is slowly sinking, but to see evidence in front of your face is impressive and a bit sad.

The next day it was off to Rome, where we stayed four nights, including Christmas eve, Christmas Day, and the Feast of St. Stephen (the 26th), which has special meaning for our family. We stayed in Trastevere (http://www.italyheaven.co.uk/rome/areas/trastevere.html), which is somewhat less touristy than the heart of Rome and is full of local folk. We stayed near the church of Santa Maria, where we went to midnight Christmas Eve mass. The area is gorgeous. It is easy to get lost in the many twisting and turning little cobblestoned side streets, and we did so intentionally many times. It’s cool to stop at the local watering hole, partake of a Negroni, and figure out which way is which.

We walked Rome for four days, maybe six or seven hours a day. There was no giant agenda as to what we had to see, with one exception to be noted in a moment. At times we felt a bit like Chevy Chase looking at the Grand Canyon—with a wave of the hand: ‘Oh THAT’s the Coliseum’ without breaking stride. Of course the sights are important, but sometimes you just can’t stress and really, what is the most important thing? Food, of course. So we saw many of the sights we were supposed to see—of course, we did throw coins into Trevi—and missed others with aplomb. No worries. But we walked and walked some more and it took a bit to get back to our neighborhood. Oh, we DID go to the Vatican to receive Il Papa’s Christmas message and blessing. We couldn’t understand it all, but I am pretty sure I heard him say ‘thanks to Leo and Lucia for coming all the way from Austin, Texas just to see little ol’ me’.

The exception in terms of sights was the stairs of La Scala Santa, across from the Basilica of St. John Lateran—not to be confused with the Spanish Steps, which we also happened to visit. So, you enter a smaller church from the side and are greeted by steps that are a very modest spectacle to most. The ONLY way you are allowed to ascend the steps are on your knees. In the early 1920s Lucia’s grandmother, Eva Beghelli, went there with her young daughter, Gianinna (who eventually became Lucia’s mother). Eva was suffering from TB and most likely was there to offer prayers. After completing the steps and as she was leaving the church she collapsed and was taken to a nearby hospital. She died only a few months later. We had talked for many years of going there, and so the moment and place were very special.

We left Rome one morning around 8.30, taking the bus to the train station, and then bought tickets to Zagreb. We knew that there was a change in Venice and Villach, but we hadn’t realized that from Venice to Villach was by bus!!! At first it seemed like this was going to be a disaster, but trains and buses in Europe tend to run on time, so we arrived in Zagreb sixteen hours later and as scheduled.

Rome is one of the most energetic cities we have ever experienced. The people, sights, sounds, and smells are rivaled by few, although Rio may come close. The place never stops and your senses are on constant alert. Ah, the food? Fantastico!! Lucia goes crazy for the rustico bread. As in Croatia, the bread has so little salt, and it usually has a hard crust and wonderfully subtle flavor. All rules Mommy taught me about not soaking up sauce with your bread were forgotten. There was some spontaneity in choosing places for dinner, but I cannot tell a lie, Velvet, sometimes we would peek at the tourist guides. But I remember one of the most amazing sandwiches I have ever tasted, which was made from focaccia bread, provolone, and porchetta http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porchetta (apologies for using W., but it tells the basic tale) and was bought at a corner spot, indistinguishable from hundreds of others.

By the way, I am a pasta geek and the one thing I run into on occasion is pasta al dente; to me pasta that is undercooked. When it is boiling, take out a piece (of course you burn your fingers), then bite off a bit. If you see a bright whiteness on the inside, you are looking at uncooked pasta; it is not done! I don’t like chewy pasta. I only experienced that once in Rome, but I had to vent. That said, the dish was still wonderful.

How do you describe good food? The textures, smells, and flavors of what we experienced were among the very best we have ever known, other than Lucia’s best, of course. A fav was Il Boom http://www.ristoranteilboom.it/home_rist.htm, which we only found out later is ranked #1 on Trip Advisor out of over 2100 restaurants. Everything was perfect, from the marinated octopus salad to the ‘seven sins’ pasta dish to the linguini del mare to the…rustico bread. Some of the other places are Osteria Ponte Sisto (http://www.osteriapontesisto.com/) and Trattoria Lucia http://www.paginegialle.it/trattoriadalucia. Other fav foods included carciofo (artichoke hearts) Roma style, marinated sardines (absolutely my fav), chicory with olive oil and garlic, and for dessert assorted cheese with honey (very Etruscan; we have had it in Orvieto).

Basta. I hear the fireworks out my window, so it’s time to head toward downtown Zagreb for the midnight show. And Monday it’s off to Vienna for a very different landscape, cultural, and culinary experience!

I would like to wish you all a Sretna Nova Godina. Let’s hope it’s a great year for all. And special best wishes to little Caroline, Nina, Peter and Becca, among several little ones…

Leo

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

St. Nicholas Day

Monday was St. Nicholas Day, and it seemed to be much more an event than in the ol’ U.S. of A. Of course, this is true throughout Europe, but I gather there are some nuances unique to Croatia. That said, I could never quite figure out what was from Croatia, the area around Zagreb, or even Zagorje, which is the area between here and the Slovenian border. My Croatian readers and friends could clarify much for me, I’m sure, but I ask that they let me plow ahead with the basics.

Most of you know that St. Nicholas was a real person, unlike Santa Claus, who was derived from the original solely for a Christmas fantasy (please don’t show this to our grandsons). But they are similar in that they are very cool guys who bring goodies for little kids.

As the tradition goes, on the evening before the 6th of December children clean their shoes and put them in the window to await a visit from St Nicholas. He brings treats and small presents for each child. But he is always accompanied by his 'devil' friend, Krampus, who leaves a silver or gold sprayed birch twig to remind them of what might happen if they are naughty children (whack!).

So, on Monday in the market place—and in the spirit and tradition of St. Nicholas Day—branches sprayed with gold were being sold. Attached here you will see pics of two babushkas who were selling them. I bought mine from the Croatian baba in the first pic. The second baba may have been more of the Italian persuasion (and thus nona), because I gather the tradition extends all the way to Northern Italy.

Another pic shows those little devils hiding in the branches.

Meanwhile, a day or two before St. Nicholas day and all day on the 6th, people were walking around holding the gold branches, some with red ribbons. And in the spirit of it all, we adorned our window sill that looks down to a cold and damp Deželića street with some of those very same gold branches.

Well, on the day of celebration, we were lucky enough to be around Trg bana Jelačića (our main square) when St. Nicolas made an appearance by the skating rink. Needless to say, the kids loved it, but then again, so did we.

Finally, when I went to give a late eve lecture (4.15 to 5.45) at Uni Zagreb, the students were there…munching candy brought to them by ‘you know who’. Apparently they had behaved well.

I hope you all had a wonderful Happy St Nicholas Day and will have many more to come.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Croatian Carbs

Bok!

It didn’t take long, of course, for me to get to food. I don’t want to spend too much time early on talking about the lesser Croatian issues, like history, politics, landscapes, culture, and such; instead I want to proceed to the essentials. I’ll have quite a few blogs on food, but here I’d like to mention a couple of goodies that especially impressed us. Today it’s about some favorite and interesting carbs.

If there’s one thing to keep in mind about food here, it’s that Croatia is at a crossroads of so many cultures and histories, and so many of them seem to find their way to your plate, sometimes in subtle forms, sometimes not. So, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia as major examples, have some have some sway on food here. On occasion there’s even a taste of Greece and Turkey from one direction and Germany and friends from the other. And although the country not very large, food can vary by region, depending at least partially on the neighbors. What you find in Istria may be somewhat different than in Slavonia. The bottom line is that the influences are many and so Croatian cuisine has many sides.

OK, let’s start with štrukli. If you want a comparison, the closest thing to štrukli is a cheese blintz. But the ones we had at Nokturno—a fun local restaurant (http://www.restoran.nokturno.hr/) –were far richer than any blintz I have ever had. They were amazing. Lucia and I went over there on a Sunday with Jess Kuntz and we somehow misunderstood what we were about to get, so we ended up with three fairly large pieces each. We ate it all, and then didn’t eat anything for the rest of the day! The pic you see here grabbed from the web looks exactly like what we got, except for the glob of topping. The filling is comprised of various combinations of ‘farmers cheese’, ‘baker’s cheese’, and sour cream, although I’ve seen ricotta and even feta mentioned. I have no idea what combination of cheeses we got on this occasion, but it was extremely rich and very good, with a calorie and fat content that would not be approved by Doc Meyerson. Finally, bread crumbs cooked in butter may be sprinkled over the top, which is what we got, as if that rich touch is needed. Štrukli is basically a Croatian dish, certainly more so than the other foods I mention here. In fact sometimes it’s called Zagorske štrukle, which refers to its origins in Zagorje, that is, in the general region from Zagreb to the Slovenian border. I have no idea if people take the time to make it at home, but you find it often in restaurants. This is great stuff!
At another end of the scale is Mlinci, which is very simple in form. Mlinci can be found in Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia, but it may be most popular here in Croatia; don’t quote me on that one. It’s a kind of pasta that is thin, hard, and flat when you get it, it usually comes in square sheets, and it’s very inexpensive. You break it up into pieces, so it’s usually shaped irregularly once it’s in your dish. Sometimes it’s referred to as ‘noodle’ and when we were in Slovenia (Ljubljana) we saw it named ‘pasta tatters’. We haven’t seen it in restaurants but it is on shelves in a variety of places. Sometimes you can buy it at Konzum (the local ‘super market’ found everywhere here in Zagreb—but don’t think LARGE super market ala the U.S.). The best place to get it is at the pasta shops (stalls), especially in the underground part of Dolac, which is our very large and very nice market place.

Mlinci is usually cooked—softened up is more like it—in a matter of seconds in hot water, nearly always less than a minute, and then it’s plopped into a dish that has plenty of sauce or juices, which it helps to absorb. I gather that quite often it’s dropped in alongside a roasting duck, piece of pork, or turkey. Rumor has it that the indefatigable Larry Moneta would eat chunks of it right of the sheet, but I’m not sure if I can trust a vegan. Check out the two pics from home. Lucia poured the juices from the roast chicken over the mlinci, which of course was fantastic, especially when accompanied by a fine Dalmatian wine.

Then there’s the palachinka . Sometimes we see the palachinka called a pancake or crepe, but somehow(don’t ask), it’s a bit different. You see them once in a while in restaurants and maybe a bit more often in the little food stalls/shops that you find everywhere, but I sense they are more often than not a home-based food. You find them throughout the Balkans (google it!) and as you proceed north into the rest of Eastern Europe you’ll find a similar dish with similar names. They are cooked flat in a pan, are soft, not especially sweet (OK, they are similar to a crepe) and then are served with jam, nutella, or other sweets. Here’s two pics of a fantastic batch made by Amela (and mostly ably assisted by Jess and Liz), which was then inhaled by all the Fulbrighters at the Zonn abode. Those puppies would be good anytime, maybe with kava i mlieko in the morning or with čaj i mlieko in the eve.

OK, that’s enough. Given that I’m on carbs, I should talk about bread (one of the first words you learn here is kruh), which is amazing in variety, quality and freshness, but I’ll save that for later.

Laku noć (good night)!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dobar Dan!

Dobar Dan!

This first blog entry is necessarily brief, because—being an old dog learning new tricks—I am not one hundred percent sure that when I push the button my entry will not be winging through some kind of ether space, far away from intended sources.

That said, I gather that the first blurb should state the basics that answer the immortal words of David Byrne, ‘well, how did I get here?’ To begin, I am a professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas, where I have been since 2004. That in itself doesn’t justify a blog, but being a Fulbright Scholar for the year in Zagreb, Croatia might. At least that’s what my friend Velvet says, and she took the time to do so during her sojourn in Slovenia; in essence, she has shamed me into trying. And Amela, one of my amazingly bright and interesting young Fulbright colleagues here in Croatia, has a nice blog, so why not let the old dog try? And, of course, my different-generation stories will likely have different emphases than those young pups.

The title of my blog says ‘Leo’, but as those of you who know me appreciate, I don’t go anywhere for very long without Lucia, so this is actually a collective tale for the most part. We arrived in Zagreb September 1 of this year after an eight day stopover in Prague and will be here until the summer of 2011. I am associated with American Studies in the Department of English at the University of Zagreb, or as most of you know it, ‘Odsjek za anglistiku , Filozofski fakultet Sveučilišta u Zagrebu, there on Ivana Lučića. Uh, more on the language later.

We were most fortunate to land a very nice and spacious apartment before we arrived, which makes us the fourth generation Fulbrighter to be in this place. Our new friends in Austin, Ted and Christine Huston, were invaluably helpful in the process. If we were in the U.S., we’d be on the fourth floor, but in Zagreb, we are on the third. Regardless, it’s the top floor, gets plenty of sunlight when the stuff is around, has wi-fi, Jacuzzi, a nice guest room upstairs, and it’s only 86 steps to our door from the street, or so the Hustons and the Monetas of Durham claim.

I am attaching a couple of pics of our place less for information purposes than to see if this thing works.

Finally, I must give the perfunctory statement that the opinions of this blog are my own and not those of the Fulbright Commission or the State Department, and any and all errors belong to Lucia.

Dovidjenja!