Summer Vacation Europtrip

An actual conversation between J and I on a Saturday morning.

J: I’d like to go to Antarctica with one of these Nat Geo expeditions. They look really well put together.

Me: Oh, yeah. That would be neat. (pause) Penguins?

J: Yeah, come look at the pictures, you could actually walk with the penguins.

Me: Walk. With. Penguins? They’d be so cute and, and, penguin-y!!! And then I’d grab one and SQUEEZE his cute little penguin self! (Insert hand clapping and air choking, em, squeezing of imaginary penguins here).

J: They probably aren’t so cute if you squeeze them. They probably get angry.

Me: Angry Penguins!! (More hand clapping)

Source: National Geographic Expeditions

If you didn’t think I was crazy before, you surely do now. That’s okay. I mostly am crazy. And I think it’s totally normal to be consumed by the desire to squeeze anything that is cute and even more justified in squeezing until eyes pop if said cute things are also fuzzy and or fluffy.

But wouldn’t that be awesome? Add Antarctica to the list. Okay, we’ll its already on the list but the thing is you have to get to South America first and that’s far away. Far far away. You know what’s not so far away? Europe. Which is where I’ve been this summer. Sometimes being a teacher is pretty awesome, like now would be one of those times.

See my little sister just graduated from High School and for her graduation gift, I took her on vacation for 4 weeks to France, Spain and Italy. As an added bonus, older sister came with us for the first 2 ½ weeks too. Sweet.

And then we ate. And we ate. And we ate.

Interesting facts about this trip. I made a workbook with all of our itineraries, tickets, bookings, etc. Because that is how I plan things. I am that ridiculous.

dinner we made in our flat in Paris healthy fresh food in Toulouse, we called it

We totally skipped the line and took the stairs up the Eiffel Tour. We like stairs.

  
being silly at the arc de triumph  our flat in paris
A random man kissed me and told me I was beautiful when we were stretching after our morning run.

Speaking of running, very late party revelers who are wondering the street at 6 am like to harass and mimic runners in Spain.

yummy mexican in Madrid @ Restaurante le Malinche empanadas and plantains-venezuelan in BCN

We had AMAZING Venezuelan food in Barcelona and Mexican food in Madrid.

Venezuelan  bar in Barcelona, good food and good service sunrise in Barcelona

summer concert in front of Palacio Real Madrid Mc'D's in Spain has Patas Deluxe AND greek yogurt parfaits. Delicious!

Italian men will not hesitate to tell you that they think you are pretty, beautiful or lovely. Cute Italian men. That was fun.

literally 3 blocks from the flat we rented Where to pick up your papal gear? Here in Rome!

Salerno breakfast on the patio at the B&B Real shaved ice at the beach. Like the man shaved it from a giant block by hand.

Vacation with your sisters is Awesome!

pretty sister in an Italian alley  fresh produce stand by our flat, went here every day
oh Rome, I miss you fresh pasta

Now I’m going to look at penguin pictures and wish I didn’t have to go back to work tomorrow.

~nikki

Sydney, Hunter Valley and Another McDonald’s

Earlier this month it was Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year if you’re keeping it PC. I never know, things change. Most of the signs for sales here said Chinese New Year or CNY. But I digress. CNY meant a long weekend here in Singapore, because it is an official public holiday. Now, originally J and I didn’t have any plans to travel for the long weekend because everyone else is on holiday at the same time and prices for airfare triple. Seriously worse than the Christmas Travel Effect.  But then J’s work wanted to send him to a training in Sydney that week. And since I was already going to be on vacation…I decided to tag along!

So I thought I’d share with you some of my Sydney Travel Insights (lol, from my whole four days there!) and of course, as per the usual I dropped in to a McDonald’s to check out the local menu. So first things first, we stayed in an area of of Sydney called “The Rocks”  which is a historical district right on the harbor and is walking distance from everything. It’s got great views, great ambience, great culture and was just really easy access.

In the morning I went for a nice run around the Circular Quay, past the Opera house and into the Royal Botanical Gardens, Um, seriously, seeing the Opera House on your morning run, pretty great way to start the day. [Read more...]

McDonald’s Istanbul, Turkey

I’ve told you before that my secret ambition in life is to eat McDonald’s in every country I visit, right? Yeah, I’d like to make sure that I eat it on every continent. I know that’s a lofty goal, I’d have to figure out a way to travel to Antarctica and bring the McDonald’s with me…I’ve heard the closest McD’s is in Argentina and I imagine by the time that I get the food to Antarctica it probably won’t taste so good anyway. But I digress. This is about McDonald’s in Turkey, specifically McDonald’s in Istanbul.

First, J woke up early and headed out to get us McDonald’s breakfast. It was about a fifteen minute walk from the flat we had rented, but it took him about an hour and a half to get there, get food and get back. Why might you ask? Well the signs said they opened at 7. So J was there at quarter past 7 and they didn’t open until nearly 8. This happened quite a bit to us in Istanbul and we thought perhaps the clocks on our Iphones had adjusted to wrong time zone (as the host of the flat we’d rented was nearly two hours late meeting us the previous day! Ooops!) But it seems they just do things on their own time in Istanbul, which wasn’t exactly new, coming from the Middle East where they only hurry when they are driving.

In any case he brought back delicious McDonald’s breakfast, yum! Hashbrowns and Egg McMuffins (well a sausage egg mcmuffin for J) But sadly, no biscuits available here either. Is the only place they serve biscuits for breakfast at McD’s the US?! Sad.

We ate at McDonald’s again at the Sirkeci tram station. This time we got to test out the whole “Yes, I’d like a cheeseburger without meat” thing. It went surprisingly well! The young man at the counter thought it was quite hilarious that I didn’t want any burger on my burger and laughingly went explain this to the folks at the grill who made the sandwich up just right, the first time, yay! They all laughed as they passed it along to me and we headed upstairs to enjoy the food and the view.

Overall, the bun and cheese tasted just like it was supposed to. The potatoes for the french fries tasted like home as well, but the ketchup was a tad too sweet.

The COOLEST thing we discovered about McDonald’s in Istanbul though was, wait for it…they deliver!! Yeah, there was a portly man on a little motorbike outside making deliveries!  Check out his striped shirt! Doesn’t he look a lil like the Hamburgerler? C’mon! You know he does!

Verdict: So far, McDonald’s in Turkey has probably tasted the most like McDonald’s in the US.  Except that pesky ketchup. But I’d have to say that the breakfast seems to be pretty consistent across the globe. Except for the absence of the delicious biscuits :( Who can I contact at corporate to work on that!?
Happy Eating!

~Nikki

Atlantis The Palm

**I’m Back!! Where have I been? Moving! To a whole new country! This is a post from June that I didn’t have consistent internet to post for you at the time! I promise though, the information is still good an I have lots more coming!**

 

You know what the best thing about being a teacher really is? It’s definitely the summer vacation. People think teachers have it so easy, as if we really just show up to a classroom at 9, open a “Teacher’s Guide” that will tell us exactly what to do, send misbehaving kids to a principal’s office to be dealt with and dance out the door at 3:30. Ha ha ha, oh dear. Not quite. J frequently tells me that he had no idea how hard teachers worked until we started dating. That’s his description of what he thought I did, by the way. Any of you who teach, or know a teacher, know that that isn’t the case! Those few precious weeks of summer vacation are what keep you from burning out, help you recharge and get you ready to face the grind for the next year.

So, as the school year is winding down and all of my coworkers are planning their fabulous summer vacations I should be getting excited, right? Eh, not so much instead I’m jealous! Our kids are out officially, but we are still required to work until July 12!! The new school officially starts August 6th! AND…we’re moving, internationally! Which means not only do we have to coordinate a move but we have to actually move out of our flat before we leave the country! So there isn’t really any time for a real vacation. Boo!

To help me feel better about this, we’ve been trying to turn our weekends into mini vacations by doing touristy things. My favorite so far was visiting Atlantis The Palm this last weekend in Dubai. Because it’s a resort and not just a hotel, it really felt like we were on vacation. So I thought I’d share the experience with you and tell you about the resort and, of course, the food!

Our mini-vacation got off to a little bit of a rocky start. When we arrived and pulled up to check-in, for some reason the bellman neglected to take our luggage or offer a luggage cart. Which might not seem like a big deal, but when it’s 110 and 60% plus humidity, hauling your bags around just isn’t what you feel like doing, especially at a resort… So I went to ask the concierge/greeter as J went to check us in. And instead of offering to get me a cart or sending someone she told me to go down the hall…something about a third door, a counter and get one myself. I was chagrined. Really, I know it seems a bit snotty but you’re at a resort! Get me a freaking luggage cart please! Luckily the gentleman who checked us in was very helpful, went and got the cart, with a bellman for us and got us all settled in. We got to the room and the space was fantastic! They brought fresh fruit, complimentary water, turned on and set up the television. All very nice…except for the moldy pear that was left under the dresser. Lol, I took a picture of it three times…to verify that it hadn’t been moved. Oops!

The hotel facilities were fabulous. We skipped the beach (sand is itchy!) and opted for the zero entry pool by the Nasimi Beach Club. This was supposed to be the “family” pool but it is shared with the more “party crowd” going to the Nasimi Beach Club for the day so it turned out to be much quieter and relaxing than the Royal Pool. The fitness center had plenty of equipment, was clean and had beautiful views of the beach and pools. Bonus not only did the treadmills have built in TVs they had cold water with slices of orange and lemon and fresh fruits for you to snack on post workout.

Ronda Locatelli

This Italian eatery has a lot of hype surrounding it so I was really excited to eat here. We made reservations for an early dinner and when we arrived there was almost nobody in the place. Which was probably why I was irritated and annoyed that they placed the two only other parties at the tables literally right next to us. No, I didn’t want to be part of that awkward, meeting your mother for the first time dinner you were having and I really didn’t want your kid running around my table and clanging around his cutlery. Call me a snob… We started with the cannelloni and it was heavenly. The cheese topping was perfectly browned, a little crunchy but also gooey. And the filling was creamy and delicious. Unfortunately this was the highlight of the meal. We both ordered from the Summer Signatures Menu. J had the roasted rack of lamb and I had tagliatelle with vegetables.  J said his lamb was good…but had no wow factor. My tagliatelle though was an unappetizing pale pasty green and the sauce was soupy and didn’t stick to the noodles. To make matters worse, the pasta was cut in little three inch pieces (what, am I 5!?) so it was difficult to even lift from the plate, let alone twist on a fork like I normally would. The verdict: overrated and overpriced (btw it was $10 for a bottle of water and you must drink bottled water here, tap water simply isn’t available).
Instead if you’re in Dubai and would like a delicious Italian meal, head to the JW Marriott Dubai in Deira and try out Cucina.  Cucina is designed to have the cozy feel of an Italian trattoria, the portions are large enough to share if you’d like and the food was delicious. We had a coupon from the Entertainer book for a buy one get one, bonus!

Nobu

We only popped into Nobu to hang out in the lounge and have a drink. I’m not a sushi person, I think fish is nasty. But I wanted to try scallops. Chef Ramsey is always going on about the scallops, so I need to try them.  We ordered some fancy cocktails and some scallops with foie gras and enjoyed the atmosphere. The service was great, the drinks were delicious grapefruit and rosemary, who knew?! And the scallops, well, they weren’t fishy as I expected them to be–instead they kind of had the texture of a marshmallow. And foie gras…well duck fat has an intense flavorful kick, but the texture—slimey!!! I could only stomach a tiny little bite. The verdict: Go for drinks for sure, you won’t be let down.

TBJ (The Burger Joint)

Why does every veggie burger need to be deep fried in this country? Who takes perfectly good vegetables and decides hey, let’s bread and deep fry this! That’s something vegetarians will like! In this case the “veggie” burger was actually falafel style, so that’s chickpeas and delicious, but it’s still fried. Argh! J said that his burger was undercooked and we both agreed the buns were a bit soggy. We tried the fries twice and the portion was massive but both times they were soggy, overly greasy and were mostly little bits and pieces, like they were the leftover pieces from the bottom of a bag. Verdict: Not a gourmet burger.

Shark Bites

This was sadly probably the most consistent food that we ate while we stayed at the Atlantis. Sad because it’s meant to be more of a family friendly almost cafeteria like restaurant for a quick bite. Note that you do have to be inside the water park to access shark bites, but if you are there stop in and grab a bite. The food is better if you are eating at a non peak time and it hasn’t been sitting under warming lamps for 20 minutes. Be warned though the portions are very large! I suppose you work up an appetite wandering Aquaventure! Also, the Dubai Family Entertainer has a buy one get one coupon for Shark Bites as well but what you can purchase with it is limited. Verdict: Worth it for a pizza or burger if you are already in the Aquaventure park.

Now it’s Istanbul, Not Constantinople

Have you ever been passing through somewhere and said offhandedly “we should visit here for real sometime”…and then been handed free plane tickets to come back? That’s pretty much how J and I ended up in Istanbul for Spring Break.
We were flying through Istanbul on our way home from Prague after Christmas and we had a super long layover so I was munching on way too many free samples of Turkish Delight and humming “Istanbul not Constantinople, why did Constantinople get the works?” with a possibly annoying frequency when I said exactly that “we should visit here for real sometime.” Then tada! Handed free tickets! No, seriously. Our flight was overbooked and we were asked if we could take the next flight leaving just an hour later and we’d get free round trip tickets to come back and visit Istanbul.That took a lot of work out of planning our next vacation! Unfortunately for J it only fueled my desire to sing the “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” for the next three months. Loudly. And while spinning in circles. Or skipping through our flat. But that’s not strange or anything.
Anyhoo, Istanbul was, well, it was an interesting vacation destination. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. I had a wonderful time (despite J’s broken hand). But I wouldn’t list it as one of my top 5 favorite destinations.  I do want to share with you about some of the cuisine and such though so here you go!

McDonald’s Around the World!

I have a confession to make. I love McDonald’s. I know, I know, with so much wonderful food and variety out there why, oh why McDonald’s?? Well, I suppose there are a couple of reasons why those lovely and sinful golden arches call my name. The two of us, well let’s just say we have history. Growing up we rarely ate fast food. McDonald’s, or Mickey D’s, as my mom genially refers to it,  was a special treat. Once a month or so (and only if we had done our chores) we’d be treated with those magical cardboard boxes and those crunchy golden fries. It was then we learned to eat our french fries first or risk mom snacking on them. Later, during warm summer days, if we “agreed” to go with on for a walk with our mom after the 2 ½ miles there, we’d be treated to a delicious McD’s soft serve cone and a soda (and then have to walk to the 2 ½ miles back!).
In high school, my relationship with McD’s only got stronger…yep, I worked there. People always said that after you’d worked there eventually you get sick of the food and don’t want it anymore…not true! Instead you learn tasty new tricks to customize your orders (like how to make a grilled cheese by inverting the buns in toaster–yum! PS this is actually on the breakfast menu in Prague! Called a McToasty!)
And then a while back, J and I watched this documentary called Food Inc., and well I suppose the idea was to get you not to eat McDonald’s…or rather it really was supposed to encourage you to think about what you eat, why and where your food comes from. But what really intrigued me about the film was the lengths McDonald’s has gone to to ensure that their food tastes the same where ever you eat it and regardless of the source. Naturally, in the name of science and all things food, I felt compelled to test this.
So, when we travel I make a point to visit McDonald’s. It’s nice when you’re a little homesick (or your tummy is feeling a little homesick!) to have some comfort food. And it’s super entertaining to try to order a cheeseburger without meat in a foreign language!

Street Food in Prague

Prague is cold. Super, super cold. So while I’m trying to regain circulation in my fingers I thought’d I’d take a moment to really quickly tell you about some of the street food we’ve had in Prague and give you a super fast review on Prague. First, Prague is old. Wait, you probably knew that already. But yep, it’s super old and beautiful and bitterly cold! Like, freezing ice chunks rain, cold.
The Prague Castle isn’t really a castle, it’s a castle complex, so from far away it looks like one big castle but really it’s a group of old palaces and churches. Check it out, it’s absolutely amazing. The stained glass in St. Vitus Cathedral puts the work in Notre Dame to shame. The astronomical clock is an amazing sight but there are no regulations on how many people are allowed up so it’s a crammed, crowded nightmare. So enjoy the view from one of the less crowded spots like the the Powder Gate or even the walls on the walk up to the Castle. Just as amazing but you won’t feel like you’re going to get pushed off the ledge!
On the not so fantastic side  Prague is dirty (as in litter and such) and you have to pay to use the bathroom every where you go (5 to 25 crowns so between a quarter and 1.25 US). Oh, and there is more alcohol and booze here than you could ever begin to fathom. Seriously, the drink list at most restaurants is longer than the menu and the mini marts and souvenir shops sell hard liquor from absinthe to vodka for about the price of a soda. And the Czechs like their liquor. We’ve seen plenty of folks drinking straight from the bottle in public squares and metros. It must be how they stay warm!
And then there is the street food. Yum. It’s the kind of delicious fried and fatty food that you’d enjoy after a few beers so I suppose it’s a good match for the city. The first thing we had to try was a smažený sýr, or a fried cheese sandwich. On his show, No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain ate this in Prague. It’s like an oversized mozzarella stick on a bun and then you add mayonnaise or ketchup. On an aside, I’m absolutely terrified of mayonnaise, and no, that isn’t strange at all so I skipped the mayo and only had ketchup. Anthony Bourdian said it was “magnificent” and I can only half agree. It WOULD have been magnificent if they hadn’t spoiled that giant piece of fried cheese with a big, fluffy bun. The cheese got a little lost in all of that bread. To remedy this on my second go at the fried cheese sandwich (yes, I’ve had two, what of it?) I tossed the top bun and you could taste the cheese much better.

Beside the usual street food offerings, a variety of other food carts were offering their wares because of the Christmas Market (which was sadly more like a flea market selling most of the same items you could find in the souvenir shops). These included freshly fried potato chips (yum), honey wine or mead (eh, so so), giant chicken kabobs (J enjoyed these), plum pies, a variety of sausages, big hunks of ham roasting away, langoše (deep fried dough with pizza like toppings- very yummy), and the famous Trdlo or trdelník.

J and I can’t get enough of these doughy treats. We’ve been eating them at least once a day (hey, we’re walking like 15 miles a day and not taking the metro so we can eat those extra calories!). Trdelnik is a soft, sweet, yeasty bread dough that is wrapped around a a cylinder that looks like a giant rolling pin. These cylinders are placed over hot coals (like an open barbecue pit) and slowly rotated until they are golden brown on the outside. Some stands dip them in sugar afterwards, and some roll them in slivered nuts. I prefer them with neither but warm and fresh off the stick.
You can bet J and I have already been doing research on how to make these tasty treats at home! And of course, once we’ve given it a go, we’ll share the how to with you!
Happy Eating! ~Nikki
PS for more info about the Czech Christmas Markets check out this post on Czech Please, a blog dedicated to the food scene in Prague.

Christmas Shopping Part 2 (Prague)

I’m dancing around in our rented flat here in Prague. Well, obviously I’m not dancing right now or I couldn’t be typing! But there’s something you should know about me -spontaneous dancing and singing are likely to break out at any given time. It must be a genetic thing, because my whole family does it (well, not my dad, he just shakes his head at the spectacle).  Furniture will be pushed back, music, if it is available, will be blasted, wooden spoons and spatulas make fantastic microphones and dancing until you drop will ensue. I’m sure my siblings will be thrilled that I’ve shared this information with you…

There doesn’t need to be any cause for celebration for this dancing to occur, but in this case I’m dancing in celebration of my newest purchase. Fun little Christmas gifts for my kitchen that we’ve picked up on vacation topped off by these two fabulous silicone spatulas. These beautiful works of kitchen art with nice hefty wooden handles, an asymmetrical design for scraping and scooping and are heat resistant to 600F! Be still my beating heart!! Not to mention, they make fantastic air drumsticks…

Also on this vacation I got not one but TWO bottles of real vanilla extract (apparently that’s got some alcohol in it so they don’t sell it where I live in the Middle East so I have to stock up when I’m in countries that does sell it). Also grabbed some coffee extract, because I thought that sounded like a tasty treat in the making. I also picked up a little cookbook called “The Best Czech Recipes”, a kitchen planner with handy conversions and some interesting recipes and a real kitchen timer with a hefty magnet to hold it to the oven. On the last day at the Christmas Market in Munich, I picked up a little wooden kitchen angel (kitschy, I know, but very cute!) and a cookie cutter in the shape of a puppy paw too! Hooray for kitchen Christmas gifts! BTW don’t you fret, I got a a real Christmas gift from J as well, a deliciously soft leather Burberry tote that I could just hug and squeeze!

So, now, back to my dancing!

The Elusive McRib @McDonald’s Munich, Hauptbahnhof

I'm lovin' it

This  “pork” sandwich has a strange cult like following. There are people who eat at McDonald’s daily or almost daily during the brief periods of availability.  Devout followers can become fans of a facebook page dedicated to McRib Sightings. In 2010 McDonald’s even hosted a McRib launch party at the Times Square location! I suppose part of the appeal is you never know how long the McRib will be around for or when it will reappear, so you have to enjoy your fair share (or more) when it is available.  I can’t pretend to understand the mystic surrounding this elusive rib-shaped, porkish sandwich, but what I do know is J absolutely loves it. His friends even taunted him via Facebook when the McRib made it’s comeback this November (about one month after he’d moved here!).

The McRib sandwich at McDonald's in Munich.

So then you can imagine his excitement when we finally ventured into the McDonald’s in Munich’s Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) and found the McRib on the menu! Our only regret was waiting until the day before we left to head to McDonald’s. Hey, we were eating so much good food, we just forgot! Sadly, J only enjoyed one McRib on our vacation. But we did learn that it’s on the menu year round, so if the craving strikes, it’s only a 6 hour flight!

I even felt adventurous and instead of my standard cheeseburgers without meat I tried the Veggieburger, which appeared to be made from a deep fried veggie patty and was rather delicious (btw someone, please, please explain to me what compels nearly all restaurants to offer one vegetarian option and then take this single option and improve the taste by breading and deep frying it?? Because really, nothing says healthy like deep friend veggies, right?).

I'm pretty sure this veggie burger patty is deep fried.

Of course the menu had some uniquely German offerings, including a burger made from not one, not two but three sausages! We skipped that and the tasty looking farmkartoffeln (potato wedges) and instead continued with our theme of deep fried and extremely nutritious, er delicious, and shared an order of käsegipfel. The käsegipfel were cheese sticks with a European twist, instead of the traditional deep fried mozzeralla, they were bites of breaded and deep fried brie with a cranberry dipping sauce. Classy for a burger joint! And deliciious!

Verdict: J says the McRib was just as tasty in Germany. The cheese and bun on the Veggieburger was exactly what I expected. And most importantly, those french fries were spot on as was the ketchup. Yum!

Happy Eating!
~Nikki

Christmas (grocery) Shopping

Goodies from the German Supermarket


I suppose most people go on vacation and they go shopping for souvenirs. Postcards and magnets and gifts for their families and the like, right? J and I went to a supermarket today, being as it’s Christmas Eve and nothing was going to be open later for food.

We were grabbing snacks and goodies left and right so we can go be fat and stuff our faces in our hotel room, when J turns to me and says, like any good fiancée would, “Did you need to get any spices or cooking supplies while were here?” Yes, we’re on another continent for vacation, with out even a microwave let alone an oven and he wants to make sure my kitchen is well stocked. Ah, that’s love.

What, you aren’t worrying about your supply of vanilla extract or nutmeg while you’re sightseeing? That’s probably because you live some where with a nice Safeway or Fry’s market that carries those items for under $5 and it’s always in stock. Spoiled much?

So this afternoon we had a little adventure in baking aisle trying to play “guess the german word for nutmeg” and how many “vanilleschoten” should we buy? It’s muskatnuss, by the way, just in case you were wondering, not something they teach you in a standards German class! And we figured at just under 2 Euro’s a pack the vanilla pods were a steal compared to the 15 plus dollars they charge for them at a grocery store here in the middle east, so we went with two…I might pick some more up while we’re here. That’s normal, right? Right??

Merry Christmas!

~Nikki