Sunday, December 30, 2012

Taste of Tucson

Vacant hummingbird nest

As my time in Arizona has come to a close, I had the opportunity to eat some classically Sonoran cuisine, as per the suggestion of my bff who also came to visit family here.  Every year it seems to be a tradition to visit one of the many restaurant / food joints in Tucson which serve Sonoran hot dogs.  What is a Sonoran hot dog?  See the photo below:

Looks pretty gross in this picture I must say...

A Sonoran hot dog consists of a grilled hot dog wrapped in mesquite-smoked bacon nested in a soft bun and topped with beans, onions, tomatoes, sauce, mayonnaise  mustard, and whatever other "fixings" you desire--a slab of house guacamole in my case.  Not exactly the healthiest cuisine in the world (read: heart-attack central) but a couple per year shouldn't hurt too bad right?  Cheap treats.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Homeward bound

I've been going through a bit of a life transition currently as I'm finally back in the States, Arizona to be specific.  A little relaxation and calm is on the agenda till the end of the year.  Following my brief holiday in Arizona I'll be moving (driving!) back to Seattle to continue working there.  Last time I drove from Arizona to Seattle was during the middle of Summer (with no A/C), a solid 24 hours of driving split between two days--it was an interesting experience of which I don't hold too many fond memories but perhaps the second stint will be more bearable (?).  Key differences will be that this time I'll be driving in the middle of winter.  I recall a good deal of winding roads through mountain passes in northern California approaching Oregon.  Hopefully these passes won't be impassable due to inclemental weather.  I'll probably be making the attempt regardless though.

Some family came to visit recently and we took a nice drive outside of the Scottsdale / Phoenix area toward a few lakes nearby.  We made a few stops at Tortilla flats which was a small western "faux-town" with a few shops selling trinkets, and at a small "gold mining" settlement which was essentially a light western-themed tourist attraction revolving around gold-mining life and culture of the old-west.  It was an interesting adventure.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mannheim - Weihnachtsmarkt

Last weekend after spending some time checking out the markets of Heidelberg, I concluded my Weihnachtsmarkt tour with none other than Mannheim's sizable centrally-located version.  Much of the same types of things could be found in this market, however, one key difference to the experience was the fact that it was night--dark and very cold.  I've managed to use my nose as a barometer of all that is cold and that particular night was so cold I couldn't even feel my face.  My nose told no lie as the following day the view outside my apartment window was filled with a snowy white wonderland.

The Mannheim Weihnachtsmarkt had a pretty nice atmosphere--a frosty night well lit up with sparkly yellow dots of light surrounding the smells of wine and sausage and vibrantly colored trinkets and crafts.  I mentioned in the last post that I tasted my first cup of fine Gluehwein while getting my haircut.  Being that my first Gluehwein experience was so good I incorrectly assumed that all Gluehwein would be equally amazing--this was a disappointing assumption.  The Gluehwein that is sold in market stalls is just... bad.  I think one of key differences is probably the quality of the wine used as the drink's base.  Market stall Gluehwein uses really cheap red wine as the stock fluid and it really showed, tasting like nothing more than cheap hot red wine.  

The market was loaded will all sorts of foodstuffs, including: handmade chocolates, french fries, smelly cheese, and more.  There was also a presumably Turkish guy selling tea and expensive stuffed dates which cost about 3 euros a pop.  As tempting as they were, the price was a bit too much.  The smelly cheese I mentioned was pretty interesting in that giant blocks of solid cheese were placed directly under an extremely hot lamp causing the surface of the cheese blocks to boil and bubble forth foul cheese smells.  The molten surface would then be scraped off and spread onto some kind of bread and served.  I don't remember what this cheese / technique was called but it looked nice. 

There was also a lot of fun activities for young kids with pony rides, train rides, Ferris wheels, carousels, and more.  This balanced aspect of German festivals was quite nice with there being "something for everyone."  All in all it was a pretty good experience.  My recommendation: A++ would attend again.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Heidelberg - Weihnachtsmarkt

Heidelberg castle overlooking the Weihnachtsmarkt

Given that my time left in Germany is short and coming to a close, I spent a good part of an afternoon in Heidelberg, which is a much nicer part of Germany, made evident by all the obvious tourists completely filling the streets.  Getting to Heidelberg took an easy 40 minutes or so by local train and is a nice escape destination from the neighboring Mannheim / Ludwigshafen twin-cities.  Heidelberg boasts a very picturesque cityscape centered in the hills and is one of Germany's many recommended and romanticized cities.

As I alluded to earlier, when I arrived it was strange because it seemed like almost everyone was speaking in English--American English.  This was pretty radical and never happened in Mannheim or Ludwigshafen, primarily due to the fact that these two cities don't really have anything to offer to (English-speaking) tourists.  In Heidelberg I saw all the stereotypical hand-crafted German wares being peddled such as insanely expensive wooden cuckoo clocks, intricate beer steins, crystal figurines, train sets with tiny model houses, various wooden toys, nutcrackers, and more--I haven't yet seen any of these things in Mannheim.

Another thing I noticed was that Heidelberg has a massive Japanese / Asian tourist presence.  I first began to notice this when I saw "warnings" in shops which were also translated in Japanese.  Then I became award of the hoards of Japanese people travelling in clusters and packs while getting their shop on. There was even a Japanese "duty-free" souvenir shop called Unicorn, staffed with real-life Japanese people!

Coinciding with my visit was the Weihnachtsmarkt or "Christmas market" which is essentially another excuse for the Germans to throw together another type of festival or street market--a seemingly everyday occurrence.  The Weihnachtsmarkts exist in every German city in some capacity with multiple markets present wherever space allows.  Within the market, various seasonal foods, drinks, goods, and more are vended for the better part of over a month, from now until December 23rd.

One of the most talked about topics related to the Weihnachtsmarkt is Gluehwein which is a seasonal German beverage, essentially "spiced red wine" which is served hot.  I didn't try any in Heidelberg, however, a cup of some "special recipe" was offered to me while I was having my hair cut in Mannheim.  I must admit it was quite good and easily palatable--I acquired the "Asian glow" during my hair cut that day (sad).  Other seasonal foods include roasted chestnuts, Stollen (fruitcake things), and gingerbread everythings.

The brief trip to Heidelberg was pretty good although it was quite rainy, which put a damper on my visit.  It's nice that this city is in close proximity to dirty Mannheim, although it would seem that this notion has become largely inconsequential to my future at this point...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Maintaining my namesake

I must preface this post with the acknowledgement that I've been a bit lax with providing updates as I haven't really had any content to post about.  I imagine this will change in the near future as some substantial life changes will be taking place soon yet again...

Last Friday I had the pleasure of competing in an hour long go-kart session with some friends.  The hour was broken up into a 10-minute practice session, a 10-minute qualifying session, and a 30-minute race.  Its been nearly half a year since I've been behind the wheel of anything so I was looking forward to and excited for some hearty racing competition. 

The karts were pretty fast, well, really fast actually--being powered by 8 hp engines with a top speed of around 65 kmh (~40mph).  They were a blast to drive and the course was pretty spectacular with several elevation changes, banked turns, and more.  The karts were fast enough such that they behaved like proper vehicles in that a variety of braking and acceleration techniques could be employed in navigating the turns with speed.  Although I hadn't being karting or driving in ages, I managed to qualify for 2nd place--which I kept for the remainder of the race (the 1st place position was held by a karting veteran)--earning a silver medal souvenir.

While the karting was really fun, the vehicles were insanely brutal in combination with my out-of-shape body.  There is no power-steering or suspension in a go-kart which means the entire "driving experience" is one in which you are fighting for the wheel in trying to convince the kart-"beast" to be submissive to your command.  It also didn't help that my girth didn't quite fill the seat, so the hour of intense driving and high-g turning in combination with my weak core caused my back to slide back and forth against the unpadded plastic seat, nearly rubbing off all the skin on my back in the process.  Suffice to say, my entire body was fatigued and sore for several days afterwards.  It would be nice to be able to "work-out" everyday through driving like this.  

The best part of the day was that I managed to secure the fastest lap time of our group in preserving my namesake--FastMatt will continue to live on.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ice, a non-existant commodity

Dr Pepper freeze pops, sounds amazing

Since I've come to Germany and have been getting decidedly fat, I saw it fitting that I should make a post about some of the common foods that are popular here--especially at the work canteens.

All the stereotypical German stuff is pretty popular, schnitzels being the most popular, as well as the various  kinds of wurst--bratwurst, curry wurst, etc.  There are always some kind of "cooked flesh" available, whether it's pork, turkey, beef, or lamb.  Gyros are also quite popular but not the sandwich wraps common in America, they're just small pieces of meat with tzatziki sauce.  I almost forgot to mention that every one of these dishes will typically be slathered with a mountain of french fries or some other cooked style of potato.  If the Germans could be represented by any staple vegetable it would definitely be the potato--just as the Americans could be represented by the corn.  The Germans seem to use the potato for everything: noodles, croquettes, stuffing,  pancakes, you name it.  There are vegetarian things out there as well but I haven't paid much attention to them myself so I can't really comment.  

So you arrive in Germany and go to a restaurant or anywhere with some food and you decide you want something to drink.  Want something with ice?  Too bad, it doesn't exist.  Want something cold?  You have about a 50-50 chance of finding a cold beverage unless it's beer--but ice?  Not a chance.  It seems a bit strange that something so ubiquitous and common in America like ice is the complete opposite in Germany.  However, given that the Germans seem to drink only carbonated / mineral water, I can kind of understand why they don't have or use ice.  They aren't going to use the mineral water to make ice cubes, and they probably aren't going to use tap water either.  Large refrigerators with freezers also seem to be a rarity, so perhaps an ice-less society is at least some part cultural.  

Look at all that delicious water deposit crust, yum :9

Now that I've mentioned tap water--I must say the stuff is nasty.  Having lived most of my life in Arizona where the water is classically "hard," the water in Germany makes Arizona's water seem like jumping into a fresh bin of snuggles laundry.  If you were to pour yourself a glass of German tap water the glass would probably be full of cement after the slightest bit of evaporation.  Showering feels like you're picking up a "residue" from the water and clothes washed in the laundry machine come out stiff as a board after drying.  I can't fathom drinking the stuff (unless in dire straits) let alone making ice from it.  Although the tap is foul, there is thankfully a great selection of clean beverages to choose from such that you would never need to find out what pure unfiltered Earth tastes like.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Life update: minor operation

A cat-obsessed car owner.

Not too much to report as of late.  Today I had a surgical procedure performed on my eyelid (Chalazion removal), meaning I got to experience the so-called "socialized" healthcare system in Germany--which is surprisingly not that socialized as I still had to pay about 80 euros for the (~10 minute) surgery and 5 euros for some antibiotic cream.  I guess these rates aren't too bad but you'd think these things would be free after paying insane amounts of money for health insurance every month.  I had to wait 2 hours to have the procedure done as well (what's the point of making an appointment if the set time means nothing?).

I guess the operation went OK--received an injection of local anesthetic below my eyelid, however, I don't think they waited long enough for the anesthetic to kick in because I felt everything.  The incision and cuts were extremely painful but thankfully the operation was finished quick.  I just had to hold a bloodied bandage over my eye for 10 minutes and then I was good to go and allowed to wander the streets looking haggardly.

Some awful sounding juice at the grocery store.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Giant rats in Germany

Was invited to a family's home the last weekend for dinner which was enjoyable.  They owned a nice property with a yard that extended to a small river in their backyard.  Their yard was full of birds and animals--families of pheasants would come up to the windows and beg for food.  They had a flock of chickens and a rooster penned up as well--which was of note, because when we went to eat dinner, which included a meat stew--I assumed the meat was chicken as stews in the US are usually either chicken or beef and this stew had what looked like chicken legs in the dish.  You can imagine my confusion when after having a bite, there was a large amount of "crunch crunch" and finding the meat full of small bones which looked like nothing I've ever seen in a chicken.  To my relief I later found out after the meal that the meat wasn't chicken but was actually rabbit.  Well, now I can sleep easy knowing that I won't find tiny vertebrae and shoulders the next time I eat at KFC.

Parent and baby in tow

I've been spotted

The area also seems to be infested with giant water-dwelling "rats" or specifically Nutria.  These 22 lb rodents don't seem to fear humans as they will walk right up to you and brandish their nasty yellow buck teeth and size you up with their beady eyes, perhaps to see if you'll be a tasty treat or likely their just begging for handouts.  I believe they were once farmed for their fur pelts but I from what I understand they are protected now (?).

One other topic I've been wanting to mention is that here in Germany, there is a rather ingenious type of plant "pot" that can be bought from a company called, Lechuza (Spanish for owl).  What makes these planters great is that they are engineered with built-in water reservoirs and water-level gauges so that you will never have to wonder whether the plants in your need watering or not.  You can just take a look at the gauge, if it's low, top off the tank and you'll be set for a week or two.  This really allows plant ownership to be an extremely low maintenance concept and there's less likelihood of killing the plant by forgetting to water it.  Plus, the planters look great too!  I'm not really one to keep plants due to the aforementioned issues, but I think I could handle having one if I owned a Lechuza planter.  Lechuza should send me a planter for writing this glowing review *hint hint*.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Wine festival - Wurstmarkt

The other weekend I managed to get invited to attend a wine festival in Germany.  However, it wasn't just any run-of-the-mill wine festival, it was the Wurstmarkt in Bad D├╝rkheim--the largest wine festival in the world, otherwise known as the "Oktoberfest" for wine.  Wikipedia mentions that the festival started in 1417 and boasts over 600,000 attendees.

I don't really know anything about wine festivals or German festivals in general so I didn't know what to expect other than the fact that there would presumably be a lot of wine and wine consumption.

What I wasn't expecting was a full-on carnival, with a plethora of spinning, flying, swinging rides which didn't seem like the best of ideas at an event dedicated to a specific alcoholic beverage.  However, it somehow seemed to work out OK for the Germans with the demographic that was present.

Interestingly enough, the Wurstmarkt seemed to be a family affair with people of all ages present.  Families with young children could be found eating fair food, playing games, and going on rides.  While the wine tents were jam-packed with various grandmas and grandpas of all shapes and sizes.  It just seemed like a unique event due to this fact--old people sipping or perhaps guzzling wine adjacent to loud raucous amusement park-like rides blaring loud music and sounds.  It was almost surreal.

With an event called the Wurstmarkt you can imagine that wurst would somehow play a role, and it did.  Fair food was in an abundance, with everything from what can be seen in the photos above (french bread "pizzas", frikadelles, various cylindrical meats) along with German flatbreads, 1 meter long wursts, and a various assortment of diabetes-inducing sweets and candies.

I'm not much of a drinker but I imbibed a small bit and can say from 4 sampled wines that there is some pretty good stuff to be found in Germany.  This wasn't always the case, but that's a history lesson that should be saved for another time.

The Wurstmarkt was a unique experience which has my approval.  The Oktoberfest is currently going on in Munich and while I don't think I'll be attending, I can imagine the event would be very similar to the Wurstmarkt but on a much grander scale.