31 December, 2012
26 September, 2012
12 September, 2012
|The breathtaking Notre Dame|
We just left Belarus after two months and lots of fun with family and friends. A mere three hour flight brought us to Paris, where we had purposely booked a nineteen hour layover so we could see the City of Lights for the first time, and meet up with friends there whom we haven't seen for years. Well before long, we were living it up. Once we figured out how to find the Metro, how to buy tickets, how to make a call on a pay phone, and attempted to check our email, we were on our way to the city we've heard so much about.
After a forty minute ride on the well-designed train, which was a great experience for people watching and so refreshing after the homogeneity of Belarus, we got off at the St. Michel - Notre Dame stop to meet friends. So many different faces, shades, and languages! To be back in the midst of such diversity was like jumping in a cool pool on a hot summer day.
We had a stroll to find our friends at the beautiful Notre Dame, which was a lively hangout spot for all kinds of people; lovers taking in the romantic acoustic guitar, young people playing, laughing, having evening picnics along the promenade, tourists snapping photos, hip-hop crews doing their thing, grifters and drifters, everyone was there...
Our friends finally found us basking in awe of the scene, and we were off to meet another friend who had made a fine program for us that consisted of beginning with a champagne toast, followed by dinner at a classic French bistro, and after dinner drinks at a medieval cave-like bar that used to be a Russian cabaret. No complaints here!
|Us with our wonderful French hosts|
Everything was par excellence... Before long, we were sipping on Bollinger's Brut Rose in a cute Parisian apartment with a balcony overlooking the hip Latin Quarter, which is bursting with young international students having a good time at the plentiful bars and bistros.
Then it was off to Christophe for dinner. It was a classic place, and we went for it. Foie Gras, Escargot, Duck Confit... bring it on! Accompanied by what has to be the most delectable Chablis we've ever had. (They asked if the wine tasted different than the imported French ones in the States, and I have to say, surprisingly it did. Maybe it was even more exceptionally delicious after two months in Belarus, which let's just say, is not a wine country.)
|Escargot, the famous French snails|
|Duck breast and confit, best ever eaten|
Oh, what a night! From Brut Rose to Chablis, to Bourgogne Blanc, Bourgogne Rouge, Cahors... it was all superb! We spent some time walking around that warm night (we were told we came in time for the perfect weather), enjoying the bistro scene into the early morning hours, and having impassioned stimulating conversation.
The next morning we enjoyed an assortment of fresh croissants, fruit, and tea thanks to our wonderful hosts. We also took in more sights, famous architectural delights that just happened to be in our chock-full neighborhood on the way to the metro. We bid our friends adieu, and off we were to catch our flight to New York. Pity we had no time to go inside all the historical landmarks, churches, and universities in the area, but next time.
|St. Etienne Du Monde|
|The Pantheon, a historical shrine where many famous people are buried including|
Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Jean Moulin, Marie Skłodowska-Curie, and Louis Braille
|The Eiffel Tower is behind us, you just can't see it|
Charles De Gaulle is such a stylish, well-organized airport, and we had plenty of time to finish off our croissants (the best we've ever had of course) and find our gate. And AirFrance, complete with the best-styled flight attendant crew we've ever laid eyes on, was great to fly with as well. They even give you complimentary eye masks, mini VSOP Cognacs, and mini Camembert wedges (just in case you didn't try the French cheese on your visit I suppose, or even if you did, but we hadn't, so it completed the checklist.) (These are the kind of thoughtful touches that continue to set European airlines apart from American ones by the way.) The flight was only 7 1/2 hours to JFK. Not bad, for crossing the Atlantic.
Well what a difference nineteen hours makes! France truly wowed us, even more than we'd expected it to. Along with the warm reception of our French friends, the history, style, impeccable taste, and sensuality that ooze and emanate from this city make it irresistible to us, and we will make our way back soon. Wine country also awaits... Viva la France!
|Even the airport is beautiful in France|
As we've mentioned in a previous post, we like to make the most of our layovers. If you have to make a stop anyway, why not enjoy it and make it long enough to leave the airport? Especially if you have friends there or it's a place you've always wanted to visit, why not do so for the same price of the ticket? It's unorthodox so you might get a few raised-eyebrow reactions (even from airline professionals oddly enough), but it's a fun way to travel. Just make sure you have the airline check your bags all the way through (especially if they're on the larger side) because you don't want to hassle with lugging them around or even taking the time to store them during your precious layover time. You just want to get off the plane and go!
11 September, 2012
22 August, 2012
|"The Pelican Bar" Jamaica' 09|
A two mile boat ride away from the shores of Negril will take you to this cool shack, built on a sand bar off the coast. It was an adventure to get there, and it was well worth it!
We had to find the right guy to take us there by boat and the dock where he was. As he was driving the motor boat, he called ahead to the restaurant to place our food order, asking us which fish we wanted them to catch for us or if we wanted lobster instead. So, upon our arrival we enjoyed just caught and freshly prepared seafood accompanied by an ice cold Red Stripe, Jamaica's #1 beer.
While we were waiting for them to cook our lunch, which was very yummy, we leisurely lounged in the hammock and played several games of dominoes with the locals. Before leaving, we snorkeled in the crystal clear water right off the front doorstep, which was full of beautiful tropical fish and gracious sting rays. Had a blast! Highly recommended if you are ever in the area. It's even in Lonely Planet! You'll have to ask locals how to get there from Negril though.
16 August, 2012
|Yep, this is for us... Welcome aboard|
|More Sauvignon Blanc?|
|A lucky lady|
|"Oh, we're just cruising around... Nowhere in particular..."|
|"Oh, except this little island... Let's go find a spot."|
|"Ok! I'm sure anything will do..."|
|"Let's walk a little further..."|
|How about here?|
|A bit of music...|
|What a delicious spread!|
|This is what pure bliss looks like|
|Our private beach for a day... Perfect weather. Let's have a swim|
|Well dear, our yacht awaits to take us back to Minsk...|
|Yes, that just happened|
09 August, 2012
If you ever happen to make your way to Belarus, there is one thing for certain - you will not go hungry. And you'd better bring your appetite. The culture is so well developed here for hosting, eating, and drinking (which go hand in hand) that Belarusians really know how to take care of guests and ensure that everyone has a good time. It is customary to provide a delicious meal whenever guests are invited for a gathering or party, and they will put out their best, so you must prepare yourself for an elaborate feast. It would behoove you to learn how to say in Russian, "This is tasty" (Vkoosna) and "This is delicious" (Ochen vkoosna), because you will need to say it constantly as you try everything on the table. And you will try everything on the table, because your hosts will make sure you do, and then you will have more of it. They will actually heap food onto your plate, making sure you got plenty of every single thing. When there's a barbeque for instance, which Belarusians love to have, it would not be uncommon for someone to come around with skewers of meat (shasleekee), sliding down juicy chunks upon everyone's plate, and the guest is always first and of the utmost importance, so you will get fed the most. Vegetarian? Explaining that will be very difficult, and you'll get some sullen looks because they truly want to share with you everything they have, but no worry, there are always delectable fresh veggie options on every Belarusian table.
|Our "Welcome to Belarus" feast|
In the summer, fresh cucumber (agorchik) and dill brined ones will be on every table. Fresh tomatoes, sweet peppers and onions will accompany them too. The most common summer salad is made with fresh cucumber, tomato, onion, dill, and parsley in fact, simply tossed with a bit of oil, salt, and pepper. We feel spoiled here, eating practically all of our produce directly out of our host's garden, hosts being Ruslan's wonderful mom of course, and everyone else we visit. All with slightly different takes on the same classic dishes and ingredients, even the pickles are different home to home.
You will also find on the typical Belarusian table some other staples, like new potatoes (kartoshka), and boy do they love these. In fact, Belarusians call themselves, "Boolbashee", literally "Potato People" in Belarusian. The classic way to prepare them is by boiling the fresh, young potatoes (unpeeled because the skins are so thin) and adding fresh dill and a little salt to the water. Then sprinkling on fresh dill to serve. Simple and delicious. You will also find dense brown Russian bread served with every single meal. (This bread is so important here that it is a tradition for parents to present a fresh baked loaf to their children on their wedding day!)
Oh, and Ayana's personal favorite, sala - cold salt-cured lard, pure, unrendered bacon fat... It can also be smoked. Let's just say it's an acquired taste for a non-Soviet tongue. This is perhaps the most common and loved of all Russian food (besides bread, potatoes, and pickles of course). This is on the table of families across many the ex-Soviet countries year-round. It is kept in the freezer, and sliced right before a meal, served with fresh or pickled garlic, and eaten with bread. It is supposedly a perfect accompaniment to ice cold vodka (which is also kept in the freezer of course). Oh yes, sala is the Russian pride and joy, a delicacy. As a guest, you will be expected to try some, and they will love it if you like it, but don't worry, you can just get out of eating on a regular basis with a funny joke. That's what Ayana did back in '06 the first time we came, and it continues to be a running joke to this day. After politely tasting a tiny nibble as everyone watched like a hawk for her reaction, Ayana delivered her response, "Spasiba... no Sala ni predlagatz!" Ruslan thankfully helped her out with this one, which literally means, "Thank you, but sala is not to be offered." They just find it knee-slapping hilarious. Read more about sala here.
|They love sala so much they even make ceramic replicas|
Well, there are many other major players in Russian cuisine, like mushrooms, though it's not quite the season for all the varieties to pop up until late August or September. In the meantime, we're just stuck with yummy yellow chanterelles.
The most popular soup, probably in all of Eastern Europe is borscht, which you've probably heard of, because it's extremely well-known. Even people who have no reference point or any idea about what's going on on this side of the world pull that one out of the recesses of their mind as an answer to Ruslan's, "I'm from Belarus.""Ah, borscht." Yes, borscht, the beloved beet soup. It certainly deserves it's reputation too, because it is delicious and deeply satisfying. There is a hot version, that is traditionally based in beef stock, but that can be alternated. Ruslan's mom made us a yummy one with duck stock. It is typically enjoyed throughout the winter, and when people have hangovers it supposedly sets them straight. It is very nourishing. Then there is a cold vegetarian version, called holodneek ("cold one"), which is delicious, refreshing, and replenishing. The recipe is very simple and can be made all over the world due to the availability of the common ingredients. You just need fresh beets, lemon, cucumber, green onions, dill, water, boiled eggs, and of course sour cream. The Belarusian style is to accompany the cold holodnik with hot new potatoes. (To read more about the widely-known Borscht, which originally hails from the Ukraine, Belarus' southern neighbor, click here.)
|Cold beet soup, "Holodnik"|
We are eating this almost every day.
Smetana, Russian sour cream, is another prized and highly common ingredient. A spoonful is dropped into most soups and stirred in the bowl (don't worry, you will receive a tutorial), and fresh sweet or savory dumplings (pelmeni or vareniki) and potato pancakes (draniki) are smothered in it. They will take notice if you are shy with it too, so lay it on thick to earn instant approval and develop camaraderie quickly. There's simply no Russian kitchen without sour cream.
We are so in love with this cuisine in fact, that we will not leave here without having compiled a cook book full of recipes, which we will make available to others. What has been explained here is just the beginning of this deep food tradition, and we want to share the joy.
|A common garden-fresh meal at "the dacha", or country home,|
Notice the prized sala on the right between the yellow peppers and carrots
|Enjoying the meal with family and friends most importantly|
Lastly, you might also try to learn how to say, "I'm full" in Russian, but we might as well not even bother putting it here, because to Belarusians, there is no such thing!
Just a birthday party... Now this is how you set a table! Classic banquet style.Russians never like to show up to a table without food and drink awaiting them. Notice the glass setting, and which one comes first...