Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Off the Beaten Path (not really?): Prague

We tried to see some “off the beaten path” parts of Prague, but we did cover many standard tourist attractions. Prior to travelling, we asked the advice of people who have been in the Kaiserslautern area longer than us about driving vs. flying vs. taking the train. We wanted to fly but decided to drive to Prague instead. We are looking forward to our first trip with Ryanair, but it doesn’t seem that they fly from near us to Prague. Regular airline tickets were pricey, and the train took way longer than the drive. If you can get a cheap flight to Prague, the time savings is worth it, but we appreciated the flexibility to have the car on hand and not wait around for striking workers in both airlines and trains!
The friend we were meeting in Prague recommended that we stay in the “Mala Strana” neighborhood, near the Charles Bridge. One of my colleagues took a bus tour to Prague recently, and didn’t sleep well in the different neighborhoods’ cheaper hotel with thin walls. So we splurged and stayed within walking distance of St. Nicholas church, and clocked 10 miles in one day crossing the Charles Bridge to the Powder Tower, up Paris Street to the river cruise docks, and back.
Mixed plate with 2 kinds of cabbage, duck, ham, potato pancake, dumpling, and more!
The first time I was in Prague back in 1990, I didn’t have an iPhone (or any phone for that matter), and didn’t take night photos. I’ve consistently been pleased with the quality of night pictures on the iphone, so I’ve not included “standard issue” daytime Prague photos here.
Our most interesting OBP experience this time was the KGB Museum in Mala Strana, which could also be known as 101 ways to kill someone. If you are squeamish (like me), this might not be for you, but it was historically interesting (not gory, just a reality of violence).
After 10 miles, my feet were ready for a break, so we opted for a foot massage. Unlike in Stockholm, where we sat in arm chairs near large windows to the street and had people staring at us as they passed by, our massage room in Prague was upstairs on a mattress on the floor. If I’d been alone, I would have felt kind of weird, but everything turned out fine. The foot massage included hip flexor stretches at the end, which were greatly needed and helpful. If you’d rather sit in an armchair with passers-by gawking at you, there are plenty of those places available in Prague as well.

The food was great and we enjoyed a river cruise at sunset. Do you have a favorite recommendation in Prague?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Cooking and baking for a newcomer to Europe

It’s not THAT difficult, but I’ve learned a few things since we arrived from Massachusetts. Some people have strong preferences for gas or electric cooktops- I’ve always had electric so it was fine with me to get the same type here. Some kitchens don’t have major appliances in them upon arrival, so we were lucky to have a built-in oven/stove, fridge, and dishwasher. 
You can cook everything from scratch, of course, and there are plenty of semi-fully prepared foods on hand as well. I was a bit nervous to experiment with the oven, not only due to lack of familiarity with Celcius, but there are a bunch of different functions on the second oven knob. The user manual gives a chart, but trying to understand it in German was like having a lawyer or finance person write the instructions for baking! Lasagna was the first try, when I could keep an eye on the bubbling sauce to have a sense of “done-ness” while learning about the temperatures.
For baking, I elected to buy two boxes of German mix so I could read the directions on baking temps and times, hopefully bringing some edible snacks to church. How surprised was I to find a small cardboard baking dish inside the box of brownie mix! So much for the 9x13 pan I already had. FYI, the mix would not have filled my “oversized” American dish, but the cardboard one was just the right size for the mix. 
The box of lemon muffin mix also included 12 paper muffin liners that didn’t need to go into a muffin pan, just on a cookie sheet. Jeff and I disagreed about our refrigerator situation. I had hoped to go “European” and make due with the smaller fridge/freezer in the kitchen. Some of the houses we looked at had a second “normal” American fridge elsewhere in the house- because it wouldn’t fit in a regular (small-ish) German kitchen. For example, the second fridge was stashed in the dining room or basement. Jeff was convinced we would need additional cool storage space, and it turns out he was right. I had hoped to buy veggies from the farmer’s market and go to small local grocery stores perhaps more than once per week. Then I started working full time, and I quickly realized that I was back to a cooking marathon on Sunday afternoons, preparing at least two full dinners and numerous plastic food storage containers to bring to work with salads, leftovers, etc. in them. Plus some freezer containers with dinner portions for future meals. We haven’t used the second refrigerator section much, but the freezer in the basement holds some pizzas, larger bags of American frozen veggies,  leftovers, etc. 

Do you have any "get ready for the work week" food prep tips or any European cooking/food storage tips?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Off the beaten path in Germany: the city of “Mainz”

The Episcopal chapel service at one of the small military installations in Kaiserslautern set up a field trip to the Cathedral in Mainz, followed by a tour of the Gutenberg Museum around the corner. Mainz is a reasonable day-trip drive from the Kaiserslautern area, and the train is also an option. After a one hour car ride, we parked at a garage near the city center. We weren’t thrilled about the 12 Euro fee for 6 hours, but we couldn’t find an on-street spot due to the large farmer’s market just outside the Cathedral. Anyway, the garage was cheaper than the train.

The Cathedral was peaceful inside, unless a combination of Romanesque architecture and Gothic decorations would bother you. A beautiful cloister led to a “treasury” museum which we did not go to on this trip.

We had lunch at one of the numerous cafes on the square outside the Cathedral. Our group enjoyed sandwiches, pizza, 2 different hot meals, and desserts- but of course!

We’d highly recommend the Gutenberg Museum, even if your top priority is not  seeing the first printed Bibles. There were sections on the history of paper itself, printing presses, newspapers, and exhibits about the printed calligraphy of China, Japan, and Korea, along with European handwriting. The Bibles and other books showed how painted letters and vines decorated pages. It was also neat to see a printed copy of Luther’s 95 Theses! There were demonstrations of printing presses and a fun gift shop. Too bad we couldn’t take any photos inside the museum. 

After the museum, we walked around a bit, scoring on fruit and flowers. I’m not sure why the strawberry vendors were trying to convince me that 2 boxes of strawberries at 3.50 each were a bargain at 2 for 7 (I can do math in my head)? Miraculously, the oranges that were weighed in at over 4 Euro, suddenly were re-weighed and came in at closer to 3 Euro when we said we wouldn’t pay that much for 2 albeit large oranges. Finally, the flower vendors were packing up, and we couldn’t negotiate at the stand that had already removed their price tags, but we were able to have 2 bunches of flowers sold to us for less than the marked price of each separately, upon our offer to buy both at a named lower combination price. Paid full freight for asparagus, which is in season now, and delicious. One of my colleagues said there is a lovely Christmas Market in Mainz, too.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Buying and building furniture in Germany

Most houses in Germany do not have built in closets, like most houses in the US do. Instead, many people have beautiful wood closets around the sides of the walls in the room, which are customized (for example, more clothes hanging space, or bookshelves with a large opening for a TV). We received three small free-standing closets from the military furniture people to use for the duration of our stay, but they are not enough for the things we kept in our closets in the US (not just everyday clothes, but also coats & boots, linens, china in a built-in cabinet, etc.). After much consideration, we decided to not purchase the nice/high quality/high price closet sets for our rooms, since we likely wouldn’t need those bulky pieces of furniture in our future bedrooms, living room, etc.
Why is there a photo of food in a post about furniture? Many nicer furniture stores in Europe have restaurants in them (think Ikea!). The first place I went to in Kaiserslautern had plenty of furniture, but also a good cafeteria with soup, salad bar, and hot food such as pasta, fish, schnitzel, and dessert. I didn’t get any furniture, but it was an interesting excursion.
We got a china cabinet at Ikea, but didn’t have a full meal there, just a snack. I don’t remember seeing an ice cream machine at the Ikea in Massachusetts, but at the one here in Mannheim, you buy the empty cone, then place the cone into a holder, press the button, and the holder moves the cone to the soft serve dispenser, then lowers the cone as the ice cream comes out! Nifty! The furniture assembly fee was 80 Euro, so I decided to put it together myself. Argh, what a labor, but here it is (before, above….after, below).
We drove to Pirmasens the following Saturday, and found a great store. They only take cash or a European debit card (EC), and they don’t stock inventory, so we decided to not wait 2 weeks for the delivery after paying cash. We ended up with a few items from a discount store in Kaiserslautern, and at this point were willing to pay for assembly. There wasn’t any furniture to be found that didn’t require assembly! Unfortunately, the delivery and assembly folks were booked solid for over a week, so once again, we’ll do it ourselves. This stuff was pressboard in very thin cardboard boxes, so we wouldn’t buy anything more at that store, but our gear is tucked away and the stuff looks decent from the front (except where one piece got dinged when the cardboard ripped).
I asked our neighbor if she could recommend someone in town who we could pay to help assemble these pieces. She said, I’ll send my husband over and you can’t pay him. He then said there is an expression in the neighborhood along the lines of “we help each other without pay”. I don’t know if he made that up, but it sounded very friendly.
We assembled the table & are pretty sure it's safe...come on over for dinner!