Thursday, December 18, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Brett and I are headed for the midwest this afternoon. In the next two weeks we'll fly Sofia to Munich, Munich to Chicago, Chicago to Minneapolis, Minneapolis to Chicago, Chicago to Columbus, Columbus to Munich, Munich to Sofia! But we will have so much fun in between, it's totally worth it. Merry Christmas and Happy Hannukah and Happy New Year to everyone! Please check back in two weeks for further adventures in Europe, and in the mean time, check the side bar to see if you are the 4,000th visitor to From Another Angle!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Colors of Valencia

Though Brett preferred to think of it as Valencian in its style, to me, Valencia was Venice Beach meets Prague meets Sintra meets the Istanbul grand bazaar meets Salamanca. It is one of my favorite things about seeing so many new places, the sense of connection that I find to the rest of the world in the new sights. It's not that I appreciate Valencia any less for the fact that its windy alleys remind me of the angled streets of a hill town in Portugal and its many-hued buildings remind me of the neighborhoods of the Czech Republic's capital, it's that I appreciate it more. Lately I've struggled some with my ex-pat-hood, but at the same time, I am learning to appreciate the feeling of being a world citizen for a while. I am reading Brideshead, Revisited, and a thrill ran through me when the main characters stopped for a drink at "The Trout" pub in Oxford, which I passed many times this summer. As we watched Casino Royale last night, I smiled as the location of some secret Bond moment usually located in some far off land tapped out across the bottom of the screen, and we had been there. The early morning weather forecast from CNN has an added twist of fun as the European capitals pop up with their temperatures, and I remember the feel of the air in some of them, and even have a vague idea of what those Celsius numbers actually mean.

Valencia, City of Alleys

My favorite part of Valencia was the layout of the city:  crooked alleys that curved around buildings, almost always revealing some alluring prize around the next corner.  Sometimes an arch would frame a distant steeple, or a patch of color would shoot out above centuries old stonework.   Other times, a fountain in the middle of a town square temporarily brought you into the open, only to lead to another labyrinth on the other side.  Betsy and I spent a few hours getting lost there on Sunday, on a brief stopover on the way back from Brussels.  

The light was fantastic:  bursts of sunlight contrasting looming storm clouds.

One of those alleys...doesn't it make you want to see what's around the corner?

And finally, tapas.  After walking around, we settled into a tapas bar where I sated my appetite with...well...pretty much one of everything.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Take A Bite out of Brussels

Brett. With Meat. 

Walking down one side of the Brussels Christmas Market

The market hosts two highly unusual and creative Merry-Go-Rounds

Inside the famous Belgian Chocolaterie - Leonidas

Three countries - Belgium, Spain, and Bulgaria - in twenty four hours is tiring, but it helps to be propelled by the right food. Like those Wheaties commercials back in the day, except SO MUCH BETTER. 

The Brussels Christmas Market is ranked #1 of European markets for foodies, and strolling down its aisles, we could see why. On a five minute walk through the square, a hungry visitor might sample: French doughnuts sprinkled in powdered sugar, churros with a thick chocolate sauce for dipping, enormous sausages with sauerkraut on crusty baguette chunks, vats of scalloped potatoes with cheese oozing from every crevice, fresh mussels, gluhwein, hot waffles with white or dark chocolate, French fries with mayonnaise, fresh breads and pastries, cured meats of every shape and color, Belgian chocolates, candied apples, and fancy fruit jellies. 

We arrived in Brussels before the sun came up and found our way into town to one of its most popular bakeries. Energized by breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien ("The Daily Bread") and sampling throughout the market, we took the tram to Cirque de Soleil (where Brett made his fabulous international circus debut) and then met Brett's friend Julia  - whom he took his CELTA course with this summer - and her family. We really enjoyed spending the evening with Julia and James and their daughters Lucy and Molly, talking to them about the educational system in Belgium and James' incredible running career, and enjoying yet another delightful meal at a Belgian brasserie.  We spent a lovely night at their house. After seeing the sun rise in the woods behind their house in the morning, we headed for Valencia, Spain.

More on that to come. 

A Funny Thing Happened at the Circus

These two performers were the highlight of the show for me. They did an elaborate routine in which they slowly moved into all kinds of absurd balancing postures that no mortal human could replicate. For several minutes, no part of her body even touched the ground. And then the tables turned:

This four story tower was formed when the two men to the left of the tower basically launched the fourth man while he was standing on their clasped hands. He landed perfectly on the wobbly shoulders of the third tier, eliciting a gasp from the crowd.

As Betsy and I sat raptly watching Cirque du Soleil on Saturday afternoon, we were wondering if the "volunteers" from the audience were actually Cirque employees. One woman, in particular, seemed mighty comfortable in her improvisational performance, and when she turned to go offstage, I noticed well-defined triceps that spoke of many hours practicing acrobatics. At intermission, we looked toward her seat to see if she'd return for the second half of the show. As the second half began, almost immediately a clown came out and the spotlights searched the audience for another volunteer. Our skepticism was soon banished when the spotlight landed on me, and I was invited on stage. My doubt quickly turned to fear as three other volunteers and I had to act out an elaborate scene with minimal instruction. I remembered why I never took part in school plays. My knees started knocking. And then my part (a jilted lover) began. I don't remember much, only that I didn't completely embarrass myself, and that my part ended with me shooting "the other man." Unfortunately, you're not allowed to take pictures during the performance (I stole all of these from the web), but below is a picture of the clown who hurriedly whispered stage instructions to me while running around. The show, "Quidam," was incredible. If you ever have a chance to see a Cirque show, do it. And if possible, get tickets in the front row!

Friday, December 12, 2008

First (Annual?) ACS Christmas Cookie Exchange

Next stop: Brussels

Lunch at school is a good time to surf the web and read about upcoming trip locations over the random tupperware contents of the day. The New York Times travel and official destination websites often have good things to say, but my ideal news source is the blog of someone living on location in the city we are about to visit.

We are leaving for Brussels tomorrow and today's lunchtime surfing produced perhaps the best blog title I've ever heard:

Brussels Sprout:
It's a blog written by a vegetarian in Brussels ever in quest of a good meal. Brilliant wordsmithing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Sky is Falling!

Today I was fortunate enough to have the inimitable Mrs. Potash make a guest appearance in my class. Her objective: to holiday-ize the room. By imparting her intricate knowledge of snowflake-making on my eager students, Betsy held them rapt for much longer than their typical attention span and earned their infinite respect. Not to mention improving the appearance of the room. All of the 8th grade classes decorate their rooms, and much as we did on Halloween, we have a contest to see who has the most festive room. If our class somehow wins, we owe it all to Betsy:

Mali, Georgi, and Lora hang decorations from the ceiling (kind of).

Lora, who always seems to be a blur of action, between the much calmer Mary and Lilly. They're attaching ribbons to snowflakes for hanging.

A dedicated group of snowflake makers, apprenticing themselves to the master ("apprenticeship" was a vocab word last week).

Here you can see a few of the flakes (and our Christmas tree!) dangling. There are now MANY more. As one of my students remarked, "it looks like a winter jungle!"

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hopefully Coming soon to The Duluth Budgeteer...

Another Angle on Christmas

The first Sofia snow of 2008 fell on the day of fall parent-teacher conferences, and it was as lovely a white coat as ever cleansed a brown November landscape. But as the day wore on, no shovels appeared. No snowplows. No salt. Bulgarian pedestrians and drivers alike just got tough, and our parking lot reminded me vividly of the Congdon skating rink. As the ice turned to slush and back, I wondered what other surprises were waiting for me, and what the holidays here in Eastern Europe would be like. The Italian grocery store on our corner began sporting its Santa hat in October, but would that be the most festive thing about our holidays abroad?

In November, we took trips to Vienna and Prague, little guessing the merriment awaiting us. By pure Minnesotan luck, we visited each city on the opening day of its Christmas Market.

In Vienna, gothic spires towered above a holiday village – miniature wooden cabins selling sausages dipped in sweet dough, giant gingerbread hearts, home made soaps in every shade. We admired overflowing counters of nativity figures and cheese wheels, sipping hot mulled wine to warm us as we walked. Bright ornaments decked the tree branches overhead, and everyone smiled their delight as Austrians and visitors mingled along the paths.

In Prague, another international crowd packed opening night of the Christmas market in the old town square to see the annual tree lighting. Brett and I stood with the group, listening as a German choir sang a carol on stage. Czechs in the audience joined the song with their own words – timing a bit off - as I mouthed the English words, taking part in a trilingual celebration. The little boy on his mother’s shoulder just ahead grinned in our direction, seemingly oblivious to the cold as his hat slipped over his eyes. Around us, happy visitors ate baked cinnamon twirl doughnuts, shopped for Czech sweets and crafts, and admired the tiny dogs in winter coats. Our favorites were the dachsunds.

By December we were back at home and curious to see the holidays in Bulgaria, beginning with a celebration of Thanksgiving on St. Nicholas day - hosted by American and Canadian faculty. I volunteered to captain “Team Dessert.” As we churned out banana cream and pumpkin pies and cut apples for 15 pounds of sugary crisp, our friends carved 20 turkeys and mashed potatoes galore. By the time the Bulgarian faculty families arrived, we had cooked enough food for all 100 of us to enjoy together. At the same time we celebrated the “Name Day” of a wonderful staff member named Nikolai –- blending the Bulgarian tradition of celebrating life on the day of the saint bearing your name with the American one of Thanksgiving.

The holiday festivities will continue now, right up until the end of school. I’ve organized a cookie exchange sure to include Bulgarian and American favorites, and soon students will give their annual Christmas concert featuring traditional Bulgarian dances. Lights are appearing down town, and even illuminating a stray window here and there in the blocky apartment buildings all around us. It’s supposed to snow again tonight, and tomorrow I’ll open the next window in my Advent calendar. Here in Bulgaria, we are finding joy and community in the sharing of holiday traditions: German, Austrian, Czech, Bulgarian, Canadian and American.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Thanksgiving Dinner for 100+ on St. Nicholas Day

So what goes into the process of making dessert for over 100 people? Two crates of apples, a mini-tank of cinnamon, three boxes of cream, one very large white pumpkin, many bags of sugar and flour, three aprons, six knives, two pastry hooks, nine people, and three hours. But we did it! Our homemade banana cream and pumpkin pies and four platters of apple crisp made a big hit to top off the annual ACS Thanksgiving dinner, prepared by the internationals for the Bulgarian faculty and their families. The evening began with wine and soda, stayed strong through turkeys stuffed with sage, rosemary, cinnamon sticks and apples, garlic-cheddar mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry-apple stuffing, and green beans with almonds, and wrapped up with the fruits of team dessert's labors. Go team! My only regret was being too busy slicing and dicing with the team to see much of the dinner or talk to the guests. We did eat the food though, and it was fantastic!

Betsy and Brett, apron-wearing members of "Team Dessert"

Roxanne juggles our pie crusts

Grace and Celia Cangiano with turkey remains

John Stephens and his sons cavorting about the kitchen

Deana, Matt, Jeff, and Larry carve 2 of about 20 turkeys. See that apron? That signifies a member of team dessert!

George, Tom, Sarah, Brett, and Jess peel and slice apples for Crisp

The final stages on one of the Banana Cream Pies

Peeking into the vat of Garlic-Cheddar Mashed Potatoes (this pan is about 2.5 feet high)

Mid-Crisp Preparation

Soon to be pumpkin pie (no puree available in Bulgaria, just very large and hard pumpkins to be hacked apart, boiled, and then mashed...)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland

The markets of Sofia look extra bright in the winter, and instead of water misting their fruit, vendors can just let the icicles drip down to create realistic - looking dew drops! 

Coming Soon: "Thanksgiving Comes to ACS", or "The Day I Discovered I Don't Want to Make Dessert for a Living"

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

More Snapshots from Prague

Brett and Knight in Golden Lane

One of many Stained Glass windows in St. Peter's Basilica

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Snapshots from Prague

View from the Strahov Monastery above Prague

Decorating the Tree in the Main Square