Thursday, December 31, 2009

Almost vegan in Europe: the wrap-up

I could write a long, rambling finale in which I gush about everything I saw, ate, and experienced over the course of five weeks all over Europe—but I think that’s exactly what I’ve been doing over these past three months of entries! You’ve read what I’ve had to say and seen glimpses of all I did, and honestly, a summary is unnecessary. Suffice it to say, this was without a doubt the most exciting, invigorating, exhilarating, (expensive, fattening,) fulfilling, inspiring, important, unforgettable, life-affirming, and quite simply the BEST thing I’ve ever done for myself, hands down. What a thrill, what a rush, what a dream, and it was worth every penny, calorie, and moment.

I stated it best in the final email I wrote to my friends, from London-Heathrow airport: "I don't feel like a different person, but I do feel like a fuller, better, happier, and luckier one. I'm so ready to set the rest of my life in motion. I feel reaffirmed in who I am and what I want." And it’s true, and I do, and I’m never going to let myself forget the incredible feelings of lust and love for life that this journey instilled in me.

The second half of this year has been comprised of some of the best months of my life, and I feel more optimistic and content than I have in years. I wish everyone a surplus of health, happiness, hope, and home cooking in 2010. Bring on the new year!

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Almost vegan comes home

We left Amsterdam and drove back into France, boarding the ferry at Calais. On board the ferry, I splurged on some good British Indian food for lunch—vegetables tikka masala with basmati rice and pappadum, and a sliver of apple pie for dessert.

We were dropped off at the same hotel we’d stayed at upon our arrival in England. On the bus on the way there, we said most of our real goodbyes. A few of us, after cleaning up, went to the hotel bar for some final drinks together. I was so sad it was my last time to see all these great people, but I told everyone I wasn’t going to say goodbye, just "See you later." Because hopefully, someday, I will!

On my own for the evening, I walked just around the corner from the hotel to eat dinner at Hell Pizza.

I’d scoped this place out ahead of time, and was so excited to eat there. I love the dark, evilish theme—the interior is all black with red lighting, lava lamps, flaming seats, and wicked chandeliers. Seven of the pizzas are named after the deadly sins, and they have coffin-shaped to-go boxes. They had stacks of magazines about metal and industrial music, paranormal activity, the occult, tattoo and body modifications, etc. on the counter that I paged through as I waited for my order—a small pizza, no cheese, with green peppers, asparagus, garlic, and oregano, plus corn and olives on one half. I also got a small loaf of garlic bread on the side.

It was great! I loved the crispy-outside, tender-inside crust. On a whim, I ordered a mini dessert pizza to end my meal (hey, it was the last night of my trip!). The guy who was serving me recommended the Unearthly Ambrosia pie—berries (all my favorites: blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries), sliced bananas (awesomely caramelized from the oven), and melted chocolate (three types!), topped with a mouthwateringly rich custard. Wow! I’ve never tasted anything like it.

I spent the rest of the evening packing, and retired early, because I had to wake up before dawn the next day. I ate breakfast with Greg (for the last time!) and he helped me gather all my luggage to bring out to the shuttle. I packed myself a peanut-butter-and-jam (half raspberry, half boysenberry) sandwich for the road (er, air).

I was dropped off at the airport, where I bought some grapes and a banana to snack on and bummed around for awhile till I could board my plane to Dallas. Two meals (check them out here) were served during the 10-hour flight, and again, American Airlines impressed me with the quality of their veg food.

After a brief layover in Dallas, I flew home to Kansas City. How surreal it was to be back!

Picture to come

Although I was more than happy to gorge on bread and pastries for 35 days, I was inordinately stoked for my first meal upon getting home—a grocery store salad bar haul of chickpeas, kidney beans, artichoke hearts, peas, shredded carrot, red pepper, green pepper, green onion, and who knows what else I threw in there. In the end, I truly do love healthful, wholesome, nutritious food.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Almost vegan in Amsterdam II

The following morning, we went on a quick excursion to a little Dutch fishing village on the coast. It was the cuteness.

My luggage had become way too bulky and heavy, so after our return to the city and a neat little visit to a diamond-cutting factory, I hauled all my liquor and liquid-y goods to the Amsterdam post office. I mailed home ouzo from Greece, bellini and balsamic vinegar from Italy, Schaps from Austria, pesto, sunflower seed paté, wine, and absinthe from Germany, and more. 14 kgs (over 30 lbs!) of stuff!

Several other members of the group trekked to the post office with me, and after that, we got lunch at Velida’s Sandwiches Shop.

Since I hadn’t been terribly impressed by the falafel sandwich I ate in Cologne, I ordered one here. And MMM, it was so much better! It took a good ten minutes for them to prepare, because they made the patties fresh and fried them on the spot. Topped with garlic and hot sauces and encased in pita, it made a great lunch.

After we finished eating, we walked to Anne Frank’s house and took the tour. We spent a solemn hour exploring the little house and attic and engrossing ourselves in the exhibits.

After that, I set out on my own for the afternoon. I had plenty I wanted to do, but was in no kind of hurry. I walked alongside a canal for a bit, enjoying the mild weather.

After that, I visited the Tulip Museum! It was adorable—just one little room. Tulips have always been my favorite flowers.

Amsterdam is the city of bicycles, and I learned that there are 600,000 of them there! Parking spots were few and far between, and I didn’t even see a single parking lot anywhere.

I browsed through the floating flower market, which is comprised of stalls selling flowers, seeds, vegetables, and more. The shops are all attached to the side of – but floating in – one of the bigger canals.

I stopped for a sweet snack at My Dabba, which was, from what I could tell, an organic-and-natural-foods café.

I ordered a trio of mini slices of cake: orange creamsicle, chocolate raspberry fudge, and lemon.

I had just a bit more time to kill after that, so I checked out Amsterdam’s sweet public library. It was sleek, clean, and modern.

I met the group for dinner at Sea Palace, a pagoda-style floating Chinese restaurant. The Dutch are big on Asian food, apparently.

I had a thick-brothed vegetable soup to start.

The main course they prepared for me was a huge plate of Kung Pao vegetables, steamed broccoli and snow peas, and a surprisingly good mushroom-and-onion stir-fry.

Dessert was a smiley-face-reminiscent trio of green tea ice cream, a baked peach half, and a fried chunk of pineapple.

It was our group’s last night in Europe. After 35 days together, we’d grown quite close. The nighttime canal cruise we took was a bittersweet delight, what with all the preemptive goodbyes being exchanged.

After the cruise, we traipsed down to the Grasshopper, arguably the most famous pot bar in Amsterdam and the world. I went downstairs with Isis and Sharleen and checked out the first and only marijuana menu I have ever seen. They had different varieties and flavors to choose from, plus pot brownies and other baked goods. I wasn’t interested in partaking, though—I went back upstairs for shots of Jaeger on the patio.

Isis and Sharleen and I wandered off into the Red Light District for a very interesting couple hours of shopping/browsing, drinking, and general wandering. We stayed out so long that when we returned to the Grasshopper, the rest of the group was gone, so we took a cab back to our hotel. It was an awesome, amazing, tremendously splendid final day and night in Europe.

I’ve got one more Europe entry to go, where I return to London for one more overnight stay and then make my way over the pond and back home.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Almost vegan in Amsterdam I

I’m scurrying to wrap up these Europe entries by the end of the year, thus the blitz in posts this week!

After one quick stop in Belgium (just a service station, but I did buy a box of chocolates!) we hit the Netherlands. Our hotel in Amsterdam was right near the airport. After a quick 4-mile run, I took a bus to the airport with Kim, Leigh, Andrew, and Caz, and we rode the train (in first class accidentally, haha) to the city. We were starving, so we prowled the main drag in search of dinner. Luckily for me, Caz and Andrew are fellow Indian-food-lovers, and Kim and Leigh were willing to give it a try, so we stopped at Koh-I-Noor Indian Restaurant. I went all out and got the Thali-style combo. We started with pappadum with chutney and a wonderful dal soup.

I got to choose three (!) vegetarian items for my main course. Not surprisingly, I selected aloo gobi, chana masala, and dal makhani. The basmati rice was fluffy, the naan was pillowy, and there was more than enough of everything to share with my companions.

Oh my freaking yum. I’d been missing Indian food so very much.

Dessert was kheer, classic Indian rice pudding.

We left there completely stuffed, and took an hour-long walk around the Red Light District. Talk about culture shock. We’d been all over western and southern Europe and even treaded a bit around the east, but it was here in nearly-Scandinavian northern Europe that I felt, more than anywhere else, like I was in a whole different world. I’m going to assume you don’t need me to explain to you what exactly the Red Light District is. Oddly, we all agreed that it made us feel sad. So many young girls, pretty girls, and though I’m sure many, if not most, of them are there because they want to be, it was still a little heartrending to see them selling themselves like meat in the windows. But hey—different country, different customs, and in the end, people are free to do what they please. Pictures weren’t allowed, but I snapped this at the edge of the District from across the canal.

Next up, I spend a full day in Amsterdam, and it turns out to be one of my favorites of the trip.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Almost vegan in Cologne

We got up way early the next day to take a morning cruise along the Rhine River. We were amid the Black Forest, and the atmosphere totally fit.

We hopped on our boat in the little town of St. Goar. Before embarking, a couple people had bought towering slices of real black forest cake from the one bakery that was open that early. I tried a bite—it was good. Black forest cake isn’t a favorite of mine (in general, I’m not a fan of chocolate + fruit), but it was cool to eat some while IN the Black Forest. Regrettably, I didn’t get a picture.

On board, I bought a little bottle of Riesling from a winery right there along the Rhine. No, I didn’t drink it at 9 in the morning; I actually brought it all the way home with me.

After our cruise, we drove to Cologne (which is, yes, the place from which eau de cologne originated). Cologne also had an ABC (another bloody cathedral), but I REALLY liked this one. It was similar to the one in Strasbourg – very Germanic – and was hugely tall and soot-colored.

The interior was awesome as well.

There are lots of Middle Eastern immigrants in Germany, especially Turks, and I’d heard raves about their food. I finally got a chance to grab some, at a Döner Kebab snack bar.

I got a falafel sandwich (with garlic sauce and spicy “ketchup”) which was served, strangely enough, in ciabatta bread instead of pita. I was a little disappointed to see that the falafel patties were premade-and-refrigerated, not cooked fresh, but it was a decent sandwich.

Before leaving Cologne, I peeked into a bakery for a quick look (and drool) at the goods.

Farewell to Deutschland! From Cologne, we head to the Netherlands to end our journey in Amsterdam.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Almost vegan in Heidelberg

From Strasbourg, we crossed the border back into Germany to visit Heidelberg, another college town. The scenery was picture-perfect; waterside homes and rolling hills gazed at us from across the river.

A medieval castle kept watch over the cozy little town.

It was such a delight to stroll and shop in Heidelberg. The prettily paved streets were spotlessly clean, and numerous unique stores called my name.

After buying some authentic German absinthe (ohh yes), I happened upon an adorable little food shop offering samples of nearly all their products—sauces, seasonings, dips, spreads, jams, jellies, dried fruit, cakes, cookies, crackers, bread, and more! I was in there for a good ten minutes before realizing that, as the labels quietly but proudly boasted, every single item in the store was both vegan and organic.

They were even selling a book (in English, French, and Italian, though strangely I found no German copy) entitled "The Animal-Friendly Cookbook."

After buying a jar of garlicky pesto and two little jars of sunflower seed paté (one roasted-red-pepper-flavored, one curry-flavored), I visited an internet café, then met the rest of the group for dinner. I neglected to take a picture of the restaurant sign, unfortunately, but I believe it was called (in German) The Red Ox. The interior was very rustic-German-farmhouse-y (with some décor that might have offended or disturbed "real" vegans, but you know me; I didn’t mind).

The first course was a soup which they assured me contained no cheese, despite the look of it. I tasted it and could tell it was thickened with potato and cauliflower, but nonetheless, something about it was suspect (i.e. cheesy) to me.

While the others ate pork, I was served a mushroom stroganoff with egg noodles. I think I am officially no longer a mushroom-hater. It was a little creamy for me, but earthy and hearty in all the right ways. It was so tasty, in fact, that I forgot to take a picture of it till it was mostly gone. My favorite part would have to be those huge, moist dumplings that reminded me of my grandma Nanny’s eierbrot (our family’s Thanksgiving stuffing).

Dessert was a light chocolate pudding, a simple but stylish ending to the meal.

Next, we make one last stop in Germany, in Cologne, on our way into the Netherlands.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Almost vegan in Strasbourg

This one’s short and sweet. After leaving Switzerland, we dipped back into France to visit Strasbourg, a border town that, by appearances, is more German than French. I was excited to visit Strasbourg because it was the place I most seriously considered studying abroad in college. Having finally seen it, I can say with certainty that it would have been a great city to study in. It’s very much a college town, yet is quaint and homey at the same time.

They had an ABC (Another Bloody Cathedral, as the Aussies had become fond of calling them) in the center of town. Even though we’d seen so many, I thought this one was particularly striking.

In the main square, there was a carousel! You better believe we rode the thing.

Just look at the lovely German architecture on this busy street lined with shops and cafés.

My favorite gelato thus far had been in Florence; what a surprise it was to find gelato in France that tied it for first place!

I got a triple dip of Nutella-, biscotti-, and mascarpone-and-honey-flavored gelati. Beyond delicious!

Before leaving, I stopped in a bustling little cookie shop. Dozens upon dozens of flavors of cookies were piled in rows of clear bins. You scooped your selection into a plastic baggie and paid by the kilogram at the counter. I bought an adorable little container to store mine in.

The cookies I chose were (clockwise from top left) vanilla, biscotto, almond, snickerdoodle, chocolate, toffee, and chocolate chip. They were crunchy, crumbly, and not overly sweet. My only regret was not having a cup of coffee to accompany them.

Next, we go back to Germany for stops in Heidelberg and Cologne.

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