Sunday, June 25, 2006

Did you eat my schnitzel?

Vienna and Tulln, Austria

Way back in the day, the OC met two Austrian girls on a beach in Koh Tao, Thailand. The brief meeting was primarily notable because of Jason's unusually high level of inebriation brought about by a "bucket drink" - literally a cocktail served in a bucket. He drank something like a liter of Long Island Ice Tea in a half hour. The consequent -13 penalty to his dexterity was equal parts hilarious and understandable. Before Jason became totally useless, we had a good chat with Karoline (pronounced care-oh-lean-ah) and Sonja. Karoline ducked out early in the evening claiming hangover, but Sonja carried on with us to find a place to dance. Jason stumbled off home early leaving me to walk a combative Sonja back to her hotel while she yelled at me about the evils of hunting. While not a particularly memorable OC evening, it was not a bad one.

A bit after, I started exchanging emails with Karoline. She was a flight attendant and therefore always on the move. We tried to arrange a meeting in Australia or New Zealand, but schedules did not mesh. Sometime around Egypt (I think - maybe earlier), we started talking about a visit to Austria. As it turns out, the wedding of Yashi and Nina was going down between two of the OC's World Cup matches and just after my family was to split Deutchland. After waving goodbye to my folks in Munich, we made a mad dash south by train bearing newly-validated first class Eurail passes. Since we are old men (over 27), they made us buy the first class pass. A bit of luxury won't kill us, but I resent no longer being officially a "youth". Karoline and Sonja were there on the platform to meet us when our train pulled into Vienna's West Station.

It was only our second meeting and some nine months since the last one, but it felt to me like a reunion of old friends. The girls lived in a village about a half hour away from Vienna. The journey by car was scenic and our guides made sure to point out every castle, convent, and giant summer music festival along the route. We quickly escaped the bright lights of the big city and settled into a seasonal wine garden on the banks of the Danube to sample the local tipple and munch on delicious plates of farm-fresh meat, cheese, and salad. All this was set against a slow sunset. After dinner, the party moved to Karoline's balcony where we downed a few more bottles of wine between fights for the hammock and episodes of spilling wax all over my trousers. It was not a heavy night, but it was a good one - the kind that you might expect to enjoy at a time when your preference is shifting from downing vodka and redbull in smokey clubs to sipping merlot in the homes of friends.

As our hosts would be occupied all the next day with wedding stuff, Karoline arranged for her sister Charlotte to be our tour guide. We met her over a tasty breakfast before setting out for the city by car. Vienna is not as overwhelmingly scenic as Salzburg, but it is a lot more vibrant and functional. Our quick sightseeing route took us past the city cathedral, down some busy shopping streets, to a famous cafe for famous cake, and into a leafy park for a rest. Then it was back to the village to suit up. Due to a delay in the proceedings, our reunion with Karoline and Sonja was pushed back. We frittered away the extra time in a beer garden next to the Danube. This part of Austria is not hurting for pleasant river-side drinking holes. At the appointed hour, Charlotte drove us over and around some hills to the site of the post-wedding party.

A more bride-pleasing location might be hard to come by. The event was split between the grounds of a small barn and the cave-like rooms below it. Outside there was a projector hooked up to some kind of drawing pad casting artful images onto the outside wall. Inside there was a DJ and no shortage of drink. Jason and I did our part by hanging up a sampling of photos of the couple all around the venue. Things kicked off around sunset when the couple and the bulk of the wedding party arrived on foot. They seemed like a nice pair, although one with definite hippie sensibilities. I was terribly overdressed in a shirt and tie, but it didn't matter much, as we stayed for only a few hours. The high availability of good quality booze took a predictable toll on the wakefulness of our squad. Karoline bravely drove the OC home sometime around midnight.

The next morning, Jason and I caught the early train to Vienna and connected from there back up to Munich. The World Cup website had misled us into believing that we had to exchange our ticket voucher the day before our first 2nd round match. The early departure deprived us of a few more happy hours with our Austrian friends at the cost of peace of mind. Never believe what you read on the Internet. It was a long way to come for just a few hours at a party, but I reckon it was worth the journey. Making the effort to see someone in the flesh is the only way to convert acquaintances from the road to real and lasting friends. You can only know forge so many bonds via email.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Round One...Fight!

Southwest Germany
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Salzburg, Austria

Due to a combination of bad luck and general lack of skill, the United States is out of the 2006 World Cup. An embarrassing 3-0 defeat to the Czechs and a surprising and litigous 1-1 tie with Italy were rounded out by an appropriately dispiriting 2-1 loss to an undeserving Ghanese squad. Our next match was Italy vs. Australia last Monday. I was shouting "Go Italia!", but the bulk of my fandom is reserved for my adoptive home of England. Hopefully Davey B and the boys can kick it a tad more ballistic than our domestically produced ballers. I see the holy trinity of English soccer - pints, St. George's crosses, and reserved optimism - playing a significant role in my immediate future.

In an effort to cut costs, we booked hotels outside of large cities or cities that were hosting World Cup matches. This strategy worked very well. Because we had a car, we could use our HQ as a quiet base for aggressive forays in any direction and have a refuge from all the hoopla. Hell, it seems, is other tourists. We first set up shop in the Borbeck area of Essen. From there we cruised down to the lovely little river city of Mainz. Our home then moved to Amberg and then (very briefly) to Fresing, a town notable for us only because of its proximity to Munich's airport. In between all that we worked in road trips to Koln (Cologne), Amsterdam, and Salzburg and a very pleasant cruise along the castle-studded bit of the Rhine.

Time spent looking at cathedrals and watching football in beer gardens fades quickly. The lasting memories of the last two weeks will be of hanging out with my family. I like "going home" as much as the next guy, but I prefer to see my immediate kin outside of the context of my youth. In Charleston, it is very easy to slip back into the patterns of childhood and adolescence. It is far better to relate to my parents and siblings as other adults rather than to behave like a 29-year-old teenager. Families can lumber along forever happily laughing at the same twenty stories from twenty years ago or they can do new things together and have a fresh supply of the inside jokes and shared experiences that distinguish voluntary friends from incidental relations.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Photo Albums: Sailing In Croatia

Yar! Thar do be a fine-lookin' album off'n the starberd bow. Turn er that way, Mr. Falk.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Video Gallery: Jackie's Croatian Concert

On one of the islands in the Adriatic, we ran into a polish guitar player entertaining some locals. Jackie gave a performance of her own.

Video Gallery: Sailin'

A little sample of what it's like to go sailing with the OC.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Video Gallery: Basement Winery

While we were in Milna, we happened upon a strange, musky winery in an alley. The winemaker convinced us to buy two bottles.

Photo Albums: Bulgaria

It's a good area.

Monday, June 12, 2006

World Cup Fever

Essen, Germany

Just a quickie...

I picked up my parents at Dusseldorf airport yesterday and safely ushered them to a hotel in Essen in the comfort of our rented Renault Espace. The first USA match is this afternoon at 18:00 CET. Jason (stopped in Croatia to get his sister to the airport) should be arriving by bus in the next couple of hours and the OC will be back in full force and ready to cheer on The States to our inevitable (hopefully) victory of the hated Czechs.

Balkan Eats

The Food of Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia

It would be difficult for me to differentiate between the foods of Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia, not only because they were fairly similar, but because we spent a comparatively small amount of time in each. At the risk of horrifying Balkan chefs, I will lump a discussion of their relative merits into one article and identify only the most notable national oddities.

For some reason, breakfasts were few and far between. The only morning dishes I recall are buttery omlettes, toasted sandwiches, and cheese- or spinach-filled filo pastry squares. It seems that brekkie is not big in these parts. Lunch and dinner arrived at the conventional western hours and the offerings were similar enough such that there is no pressing need to differentiate. Crunchy salads were always on offer and were at their best and most inventive in Bulgaria. Soups followed an opposite trend. Croatian menus almost always featured "tomato soup with rice" and "beef soup with noodles". Farther east, we only found good broths in the more upscale establishments. Meat and pasta dishes generally ruled the roost, the former almost always coming with some fried potatoes in tow. Seafood was naturally more abundant in coastal regions with the fruits of the Adriatic being of particularly high quality, variety, and price.

All three countries featured the usual assortment of fast food restaurants, including Western chains. Doner shops chucked out cylinder-cooked atrocities and fried hamburgers just as in the rest of Europe. Pizza deserves to be particularly noted. At times, it seemed like it must be the staple food of the entire region. You could get it anywhere at anytime in any style (menus sometimes featured several pages of options) and it was usually pretty damn good. It was not uncommon to see several pizza restaurants clustered together with empty tables in scant supply. Among these Balkan nations, the ubiquity of pizza was matched only by its popularity.

  • Pot - In Bulgarian, restaurants would sometime feature traditional dishes cooked and served in a clay pot. These were often very tasty and a welcome break from meat and potato plates, but they had a tendency to go very heavy on the onions.
  • Rakia - Appearing on menus as "brandy", this potent aperitif is one part grappa and one part lava. It us drunk like ouzo - mixed with a bit of water and ice. Dilution does little to mitigate the shock of ingestion, though.
  • Beer - In general, light beers were OK to bad and dark beers were OK to good. No particular brand stood out as a winner, though.
  • Wine - Local table wine throughout the region was not great, with quality diminishing as we got farther from Sofia. The Croatian offerings were sometimes downright awful.
  • Pork - Romanians really seem to dig swine, and they know how to do it right. Pork dishes were usually served in tasty, semi-sweet onion and tomato sauces that nicely combatted the natural dry saltiness of pig flesh.
  • Crayfish? - In Croatian fish restaurants, you are sometimes served shellfish that look like shrimp, but with crab-like claws. They taste very much like lobster. I am not exactly sure what to call these critters, but they remind of crayfish minus the spindly legs.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Island Hopping

Zagreb, Split, and Croatia's Adriatic Islands

I have had the sailing itch ever since the first time I first awkwardly cruised around Charleston harbor with Billy T. in the Trotmans' Laser some 15 years ago, but it was Jason (a man with no sailing experience) that suggested a Mediterranean expedition towards the end of the OC's path. It made sense to me. I think we both had in mind scorching sun, blue water, white-washed buildings on craggy Greek islands, and a deck full of bikini chicks. As usual, things did not quite work out that way.

Come the start of the OC, neither of us had the necessary paper to hire a yacht, and it was doubtful that we would be able to do enough training along the way. In times like this, I always call on the aid of the irreproachable C. M. Atkin. He had: 1) sailed extensively and lived on his own boat; and 2) was on his way to Sweden to do a masters degree involving complex systems or some such useless mathematical crap. Our original plan called for sailing the waters of Greece in the middle of April, but we jiggled things around a bit to accommodate the end of Mr. Atkin's term (June 1) and the tight requirements of Lauren E.'s calendar. The new plan became to cruise the water's of Croatia the first week of June. All of this was worked out in a barrage of emails stretching from maybe July to March when we finally put down the deposit on a boat. Only the OC's Antarctic passage was planned farther in advance.

People started coming together in Zagreb on the 1st when we made contact with Atkin and Jason's sister, Jackie. That day we jumped a bus down to Split and by the next evening, the entire crew was enjoying their first meal together - a pizza dinner in the remains of Emperor Diocletian's palace. Troy is now resident in Paris after finishing his doctorate in Amsterdam. He invited along a coreligionist German mathematician still working in the Spliffy City called Falk. Katya, a friend of Jason's from LA, came out from Milan to complete The Magnificent Seven. In my usual pushy way, I forced everyone to accept nicknames for the period of the voyage. Atkin went by his nautical title of "Captain". Jason volunteered for the duty of "cabin boy". Falk was deemed too simple for a sailor man and formalized a bit to "Mr. Falk". Troy's arrival with wine in hand assured his transformation into "Dionysus" ("Dio"). Katya's feline Christian name became "Pussy Kat" ("PK") and I was re-christened "The Mate" to identify both my position aboard and generally sociable disposition.

Sometime after noon on the 3rd, The Captain and myself set out to pick up the boat, a journey that should have been simple, but ended up leading unexpectedly up a mountain and through some woods. We finally managed to get to the place (by taxi), but more than a half hour late. Tardiness is rarely a good thing, but it is especially bad when you are trying to convince somebody to give you control of a 100,000 USD vessel. The boat owner did not seem to mind our lateness at all. He ran through the extensive checklist at a good clip and handed over the keys. All of a sudden we went from mild-mannered nerdy travelers to mild-mannered nerdy travelers at the helm of a 36 foot yacht. It took a few days to get over the initial shock that someone was willing to let such a valuable thing leave their sight under our command.

Our Bavaria Cruiser (officially called "Pave", but quickly renamed "The Countessa Von Bleefa" by the cabin boy) was a nice boat geared more toward comfort than speed. The three cabins (one fore, two aft) both slept two people with at least a few inches to spare. The head was a simple design incorporating a shower, sink, and toilet with enough room to be useful but not spacious. The main cabin housed the familiar dining area / kitchen area / navigation area trinity. All of them were well designed and the saloon benches folded out into two more comfortable beds. I had feared that seven would be quite a squeeze, but we were all able to eat, sleep, and lounge with a minimum of crushed toes. Only when we were under sail and everyone was piled into the cockpit did the boat feel crowded, but this was easily relieved by sending a few people forward to hang out in the sun safely underneath the boom. The sailing rig itself was straightforward and incorporated nice-to-have features like self-furling sails and dual-gear wenches.

The charter company supplied us with a suggested itinerary that we planned to stick fairly close to. Unfortunately, no one could possibly supply an accurate weather forecast. The wind in this part of the Adriatic seems completely unpredictable. There were instances where we went from running on a screaming 35 knot bora wind to nearly sitting still with 5 knots in our face in the space of fifteen minutes. Sunny mornings gave way to rainy afternoons which in turn turned into clear evenings. It was frustrating at times, but we managed to keep a pretty full schedule. Days were spent under sail, swimming in secluded coves, snorkeling in caves, on the beach, or walking around wooded hills. Most nights found us enjoying the bars and restaurants of quaint local towns. In one memorable instance, we were entertained until early in the morning by a Polish folk singer that Mr. Falk had dragged back to the vessel. We even went the extra mile to test our anchoring skills and spent a pleasant (if bumpy) night in a little harbor.

As with any expedition, there were a few down moments. The first day under sail saw an outbreak of seasickness, so some crew members started freebasing dramamine. This led to quite a bit of sleepiness. At some times it seemed that Katya was only ever awake long enough to down some nutella and make a half-hearted pass at Jackie. Because the wind was almost always coming from where we wanted to go, there was also the occasional disagreement between those that prefer to sail and those that prefer to make progress. On our first marina departure, we managed to get the keel stuck on some mooring lines. It took about 20 minutes to get things untangled and get on our way. More seriously, there were one or two big gusts of wind that seemed destined to roll us over. In the most dramatic of the pair, Mr. Falk and myself ended up wrestling the boom while Dio tried desperately to reconnect the main sheet block to the traveller. There was a lot of shouting and a bit of adrenaline, but in the end all agreed that there was very little actual danger.

Croatia was a lovely country certainly more Western Europe than Balkans. The islands around Split were dotted with picturesque and accessible villages that rewarded the visitor with little surprises. Although not uniformly friendly, the Croatians were always helpful. It is hard to forget the words of a wrinkled old man who predicted dire consequences to those that ignore the potential violence of the Adriatic weather. We followed his advice in spades when we spotted a tornado only a few hours later and turned tail to run. Because Croatia is more west than east, costs were not as cheap as you might expect. Taking everything together, we ended up spending about the same amount per day as you might on a land-based vacation, but we were not exactly tight with money, so there is definitely room to bring down the bottom line. My first yacht hire experience was a real winner and I look forward to others. The dream is to assemble a flotilla of vessels with sympathetic and like-minded captains to ravage some coastal area. The first step will be to do the necessary training to upgrade myself from tough-but-fair first mate to tyrannical but drunken captain. Yar.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Hello Sailor

Split, Croatia

Today we take command of 36 feet of vessel with the intention of crusing for a week under the sunny Croatian skies, so there will likely not be any action on the blog for a bit. Almost a year of planning has paid off and we are poised to have a last memorable bit of adventure before diving back into familiar civilization. I love it when a plan comes together.