Monthly Archives: April 2009

Sarajevo

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I woke up in Pecs sad to leave Hungary, but pleased at the thought that it was a Stamp  Day.  For lack of better explanation Stamp Day has become an odd little bit of traveler’s excitement for me based on the days I get a new stamp in my passport- an event that never ceases to please me, but I am unfortunately so good at that I will need to visit an American embassy soon to get extra pages.  So it goes.

Anyway, I haven’t had a Stamp Day in awhile because there are no longer border crossings for most of Europe thanks to the Schenghen agreements, meaning I haven’t gotten a new one since arriving in Germany.  So getting three new stamps in one day on the rail journey to Sarajevo- one to leave the E.U. with a train on it, one to briefly pass through Croatia, and one to finally enter Bosnia and Herzegovina (aka “BiH”) itself- made me positively giddy.  Travel does weird things to you.

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My rail ticket to Sarajevo, which I thought was interesting because it was the first handwritten ticket I’ve gotten in Europe.  This is in contrast to Europe, where everything is handwritten to the point where it was normal to always write your name in a guesthouse ledger and whatnot… I wondered if this was an indicator of things to come and it was- BiH is not quite like the rest of Europe.

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Sarajevo!  I have to say I wasn’t sure what it would be like with the specter of recent history, but I fell in love with this place almost right away.  It is both geographically and culturally different from anywhere else in Europe- the Muslim influence means you get to hear the beautifully haunting calls to prayer, and everything was cheap enough to be reminiscint about Asia.  Put  it this way, it wasn’t the land of $1 beers but it was the land of $2 ones, and after shelling out as much as $10 for one in Western Europe this made me happy.

This  picture, by the way, is of the main square in the old town part of Sarajevo.  There is a perpetual flock of pigeons in the square at all times that primarily waddles around looking for food by this point, giving a Moses parting the Red Sea feeling to walking across the square.  I also spent a very happy few minutes experimenting with herding pigeons once I noticed you could by just walking the right way, which was entertaining to me but confusing to those people-watching in the surrounding cafes.

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A view of the main mosque in Sarajevo at night- I didn’t go in though because you needed a headscarf, an item I didn’t particularly have on me.  It is worth noting though that the Bosniaks practice a very tame version of Islam compared to the stereotype in the Western media- it’s a rarity rather than a rule for a woman to cover herself up, for example, and drinking alcohol doesn’t raise too many eyebrows (though there are definitely more cafes than bars for a city this size).  In fact, one of the most popular t-shirts the vendors sell around here is one saying “I’m Muslim- don’t panic!”

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A view of Sarajevo from an old lookout above the city- gorgeous! You know how usually when you visit a city you can say it reminds you of another one geographically?  I like Sarajevo because it doesn’t remind me of any other city I’ve ever visited because it”s nestled in the valley of the hills and the river doesn’t dominate the view in any way.  No really, I sat here for awhile thinking “Pittsburgh? no river, Wellington? no ocean” and on and on like that.  And then for fun I counted how many minaret towers there were compared to church ones- final verdict was 24 minarets and 5 churches that I could see.  Definitely an interesting place.

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I could make an argument that this is the location of the most important event in modern history.  This is, ladies and gents, the Latin Bridge, and that building on the corner is the assassination spot of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 by Serbian nationals. (“Not the first time they caused trouble in Sarajevo,” a Bosniak told me darkly.) Now had he not been murdered here there probably would have been some other event that would have catalyzed World War I to happen, but this is where the stage was set.

The building on the corner, by the way, has now been turned into a little museum commemorating the event where you can see the guns used in the assassination and things like that.  Of course they only had so much material to use, so most of the museum is actually dedicated to life in Sarajevo at the turn of the century where you are invited to look at scintillating objects such as an early 20th century beer bottle or a singing club’s membership roster.  I’d complain longer but it was 2 Marks to get in (fixed 2:1 with the Euro) so I won’t.

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A typical view of a street in the old part of Sarajevo by the way- most of the shops cater to tourists (usually domestic over international ones still) but Sarajevo was always a center for goldsmiths and metal workers and the like, meaning shop after shop will be filled with beautiful hand-engraved silver tea sets and the like.  You know they’re handmade by the simple fact that you are greeted with the sound of hammering and chiseling as the engravers work.

On another note, though, I am not entirely certain how these engravers and jewelers support themselves.  I mean, who buys this stuff anyway?  Any survey o the street quickly reveals that most Bosnians seem to spend their day sitting with their friends drinking coffee, conceivably only working when they switch who gets the waiter job, and tourism really hasn’t taken off in a big way yet.  A mystery..

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The outside of my favorite kind of store, in theory an antique store but in practice where you can pick up any kind of military gear from the past 75 years.  Seriously, you poke through one of these stores and find yourself mulling over a Yugoslav-issue gas mask or a Nazi armband or Soviet war medals and the like… I confess I was tempted to purchase something, but the Nazi stuff is undoubtedly illegal in many countries I will visit and my mom would be very upset if I showed up with an old red star pin.  So my BiH souvenier ended up being a pair of Bosnian-style earrings instead.

image699And I am completely and utterly incapable of finishing up a post about Sarajevo without ranting about how good the food is here.  It definitely has some Middle Eastern influence and falls into the “meat and starch” variety of cuisine, but still has similarities to Hungarian cuisine such as the belief that everything is better when you dump huge quantities of sour cream on it (they’re right, by the way).  The above is meat dumplings in tomato sauce with sour cream- soooo good!

And that is Sarajevo.  I realize you are all reading this now and thinking “hello, war? are you going to talk about that?” but that deserves a post in itself.

Summary of Hungary

It’s difficult for me to write a  ‘normal’ country summary for Hungary because this is the country that is a second home to me more than any other.  Even if I have never actually lived there.

Highlights:

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- Spending time with my family over the Easter holiday!  We don’t get to see each other very often, so when we do it’s obviously very special.

- Subsequent daytrips to Tarcal, the Bukk Hills, etc.

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- The language: Hungary was the first country on this trip where I spoke the primary language and could assume everyone would know what I was saying, which was wonderful in ways I’d completely forgotten.  You mean people normally conduct conversations without expecting to get by on pointing and excessive body language?!

- Pecs is a lovely little city that I’m glad I finally got to see after so many years of only hearing about it.  Even if the Vasarely museum gives you a headache in its awesomeness.

Lowlights:

- Saying goodbye to my family- we’ve been doing goodbyes for years and years never knowing how many more it will be until we see each other again, but saying goodbye is something that never gets easier with practice.  If anything, each time seems harder.

- There was an elderly lady in my hostel room in Pecs who, I swear, wins the loudest snorer award after three months of travel.  I mean I am an expert at dealing with snorers by this point, but I was doing earplugs and head under my pillow and could still hear her loud as a saw!  Obviously, I ended up switching rooms.

FOOD!

Without a doubt, one of the best things about visiting Hungary is the food.  Beyond the nostalgia factor and the “it all tastes so good” merit, there are various foods you can only get your hands on while in the country and hence I pig out a lot on.  And while a lot of these don’t exactly fit American tastes, just remember this is being written by a girl who ate bugs in Thailand ok?  And this all is unquestionably a lot tastier than the bugs were…image5565

First and most important, we did a barbecue of sorts at my cousin’s place and this was what I spent my time roasting- a nice piece of szalona. Usually translated into “bacon” and pretty similar in many respects, but not the thinly sliced stuff you get in the US but rather a large square of it.  Yes, you can practically feel your arteries clogging while eating this stuff,  but if that weren’t enough one customarily drips the grease onto the bread while  roasting it.  To quote my mom when she heard about my meal plans, “just be sure to drink a lot of wine so you don’t get a stomachache.”image584

Food obsession #2, known as langos.  You know that “fried dough” you can get at carnivals in the US?  Same idea, but instead of sugar you slather it in sour cream, cheese, and garlic.  Trust me, it is much better this way!image625

This, ladies and gents, is a smoked trout from a trout farm near Lillafured that is considered to be one of the best in the country.  I usually don’t like fish but love this stuff- you peel back the skin and the flesh falls off the bones…image671

Here’s an interesting note- you know how one ideally comes on a trip like this to figure out things about yourself you didn’t know previously?  Well if this post so far hasn’t illustrated it completely, somewhere along the way I realized I don’t have an extraordinarily strong sweet tooth.  Usually if given the choice between a candy bar and a bag of chips I will go for the chips sort of thing.

While in Pecs one night, though, I decided to vary things and choose a desert off the menu.  None spoke out to me except the one I’d never heard of, madartej, and I almost broke my “not actually Hungarian” cover by exposing my ignorance to the waiter in asking what it was. (I’m told I have a slight accent while speaking the language so people know I’m not “really” Hungarian, but it’s one thing to have an  accent  and another to not know what a standard desert consists of!) Turns out it’s sweetened and caramelized egg white foam floating in sweet cream.  Not bad, really.

And then I ended up taking my careful time finishing every last drop of this desert because I suddenly for the life of me couldn’t remember the Hungarian word for “check.”  Yes, I’m fluent, but sometimes a word or two escapes me!  After a few minutes the light clicked on and I proudly told the waiter “a szamlat, legyen szives!” with him getting even more confused as to why I was in such high spirits to part with my money.  Luckily he didn’t ask though, as Hungarian waiters have got to be the most polite in the world.image687Ok, this one made me absolutely giddy for two reasons- first it’s delicious, and second for once I didn’t need to share it!  The above is tatarsteak, aka steak tartar, aka I don’t know why so many people I know have no issues with eating raw fish but balk at raw steak.  Cultural preconceptions I guess?

Usually if you ever spot this dish in a restaurant it’s an appetizer, and because it’s typically a really nice restaurant where you find it in the US I’m with my family.  Now I love my family to death but the problem with appetizers is you rarely get to eat as much as you want (even though for something like steak tartar it’s me and my mom eating most of it), but one great advantage  of traveling on your own is you can indulge in a little selfish behavior when it comes to your food.

Needless to say, after writing all that I am now more than ready for dinner.  Ciao!

Pécs

After ten days in Miskolc I finally bid goodbye to my relatives and was seen off at the train station with lots of kisses and a giant bag of food that I had no chance of soon finishing.  My destination was Pécs, a small city in the southwest of Hungary that is about as  far from Miskolc as you can get while still being in the same country.  This was for a few reasons- it’s one of the few places in Hungary I’ve never been to, I wanted the advantage of traveling somewhere where I could use my second language for once, and everyone says Pécs is an incredibly lovely town.  Turns out they’re right-

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Szechenyi square, the main square in Pécs with an old Gothic church that was turned into a mosque under the Ottomans in the 14th century.  Enjoy the view while it lasts- in two weeks time they’re going to begin renovating the square extensively, meaning you won’t see it looking half as pretty later this year!  The reason is in 2010 Pécs is going to be named as a European Capital of Culture, and renovations have already started elsewhere-

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This is part of the cathedral in Pécs, which I’m sure would be just gorgeous if that annoying scaffolding weren’t in the way.  No matter, what’s exciting about this place is below ground in the courtyard in front of it-image665

This, ladies and gents, is part of the oldest Christian cemetery in the world.  Pécs was an old Roman city, known as Sophianae at the time, and became an important Christian city. (And then, for their piety, God sent the Huns and Magyars to pillage and conquer them.) The tombs date to the 4th century and a lot still have surprisingly intact frescoes inside that are lovely.

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Another view of the museum under the courtyard, which is quite nicely done.  This open space was going to be used by some high school performance later that evening; the teenagers were rehearsing a few traditional folk songs that made for good background music.

Another odd thing about visiting the site was how they had a traveling exhibit there of the best press photos taken in 2008.  Which was certainly very interesting to see and all, but it was a bit jarring to keep alternating between “pretty ancient frescoes” and “soldier wounded in Afghanistan.”

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Speaking of museums here’s another top-notch one in town, albeit one that broke my brain.  Victor Vasarely was a modern artist born in Pécs and went on to produce brilliant artwork that focused on optical illusions and the like before people could churn out such things on the computer.  The museum is top-notch, though there are so many optical illusions that I got a bit of a headache afterwards.

One of my favorite things about the Vasarely museum though were the museum guards- you know how in any museum in the world they ubiquitously sit or stand while looking bored out of their mind?  Well here there was nothing of the sort, and the guards passed time by encouraging you to view a piece from a specific angle or even producing a few facts about the artwork itself.  I’ve been to museums on five continents and this has never happened, and it struck me as such a quintessentially Hungarian thing to do that it made my day.

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The beautiful lilac blooming at the gate to the Vasarely museum.  Smelled divine too.

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Here’s a fun little bit of local culture for you.  In the 1980s young couples in Pécs began hanging padlocks on this fence upon which messages like “Monica and Alex Forever” were written as a symbol for their love.  Since the tradition is beginning to spread to other cities- they’re even beginning to hang them on a bridge in Miskolc, though it looks nowhere near as spectacular.

For awhile the government of the city was upset about the fence, complaining about the act of vandalism which is silly because Hungarian government is too inefficient and corrupt to care about a bunch of locks on a fence.  Want an example?  There currently is no mayor in Pécs- the last one died of cancer a few months ago, and the one before that has been in a coma for three years but kept getting his salary for two.  Needless to say, very little has been done to prepare Pécs to be the culture capital next year.

image679Moving along, here is a sign I saw on the great main street in town, which translates roughly “and on the eighth day, God created the BEER.  Well done God!!!”  I suppose you’ll now need to ignore everything I said about this not being a beer country earlier, but the local beer is pretty tasty.image6801The ice cream was pretty good too…

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And last but not least, this was a scene from the German reggae party I was invited to.  It was just as weird as it sounds, but Pécs is a pretty big college town so you take it all in stride I suppose.

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Of course, the highlight of Hungary was hanging out with my cousins-image543

Left to right is Bogi, Gyuri, Judit, and Judit’s boyfriend Balazs.   Bogi has lived in the U.K. the past few years but was home for the holiday, Gyuri is currently a cop in Miskolc, Judit of course was with me in Thailand, and Balazs is a surgeon in a town near Budapest.   We had a lot of fun.image546

My first full day in Miskolc was a Thursday, meaning we had to go to “The Rocky.”   This is the de-facto name for the university nightclub in Miskolc called the Rockwell Club, as I have yet to hear anyone call it anything but The Rocky.   I last visited three years ago when they had an entertaining “New York! London! Tokyo! Miskolc!” decoration on the wall because clearly Miskolc is in league with those places as a party destination, but unfortunately (fortunately?) they’ve changed it.

And because I have nowhere else to really mention it, I do find it entertaining that if you go dancing in a Hungarian club guys will try to grab girls on the sly around the waist to get you to start dancing with them, as if you somehow wouldn’t notice.   Sort of a heralding back to the days when the marauding Magyars would sweep through Europe picking girls up onto their horses in order to get a wife.

Anyway, because it’s important in Hungarian culture, my cousins also made a point of introducing me to palinka, the national schnapps-like liquor made from various types of fruit- image5661

Here’s a fun statistic for you from The Economist, which two years ago came out with the  list of countries that had the most alcohol consumption by volume.  Number one was Ireland, surprising everyone, number two was Luxembourg, confusing everyone, and number three was Hungary, freaking everyone the hell out.  You know why?  Because the Irish drink beer whereas Hungary is not really a beer-drinking country, preferring wine or spirits.  In fact, if you are not offered a shot of palinka within five minutes of entering a Hungarian household it’s a pretty safe bet that the owner hates you.  Pity the stuff burns-

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A Kurt Vonnegut quote springs to mind- “If you have a Hungarian for a friend, you don’t need an enemy.”

To counter the madness, the next morning is spent a bit more like this-image632

Me and Bogi on the swing in my cousin’s yard.  I have a long history of being lazy on this swing- image5931

Me on the swing today- yeah I don’t know what happened either-

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A retaliatory picture of Bogi with one of their two Welsh terriers, Rudi-

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Not to be confused with the second terrier, Gypsy-image550Of course, I have a problem telling the two dogs apart so I’m half-expecting Judit to comment here, telling me they’re both pictures of Gypsy and forcing me to dig up another picture.  Hmmm… Anyway, before I get distracted on this point I will just wrap things up and say my cousins are awesome.  And if you visit Hungary don’t forget to be careful with the palinka.

Back to Nature

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Miskolc is not the most photogenic of cities.   As  the old industrial city of Hungary it probably wasn’t going to top the list in the first place, but then the communist government in another one of their bursts of stupidity decided they should tear down a lot of the lovely old houses for ugly block apartments instead.   Put it this way, I once met a pair of girl backpackers in Western Europe excited to get to Poland to tour a “Soviet planned community” and I stared  at them in incomprehension.

A few minutes outside Miskolc, fortunately, is a completely different story-

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These are the Bükk mountains, which means literally the “beech mountains” thanks to the ten million beech trees everywhere.   It’s regarded by many as the prettiest terrain in Hungary.   And if you go out in the springtime when the wildflowers are blooming and you get that beautiful new green color,
well!

My first adventure in the hills was on a hike with my mom’s cousin Klari-

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Klari  is one of those very outdoorsy people who you feel could hike through the entire mountain range without getting lost once.   Our goal on the hike was the famous-in-Hungary Szeleti Cave, one of over a thousand caves in the Bukk-

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Which is pretty huge inside, and I got to use my headlamp!

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The Szeleti Cave is noteworthy because a century ago a naturalist named Otto Herman discovered Stone Age artifacts in said cave.  And on a random tangent, I also really don’t like it when Hungarians have two first names as their real name, because you say your last name first (I am “Cendes Yvette” rather than the other way around) so I always get a touch confused.

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One of the many, many beautiful views Klari and I saw along our hike.  Beyond being a lovely person, the reason it was fun to hike with Klari is because she falls into that class of people who knew my mom while growing up and can tell me stories from a different perspective or ones I never heard of altogether.  My favorite involved a hiking expedition that ended in disaster thanks to Soviet Premier Khruschev visiting Miskolc that day- a story I think I’ll leave hanging like that because your imagination will probably come up with a better story than the one I would tell.

image647A view of the final destination of the trip, Lillafured with its lovely “Palace Hotel.”  It’s a small resort area for tourists not at all far from Miskolc that was a highlight to visit each summer because of this-image653Known as the kis vasut (“little train”) it runs from Miskolc to Lillafured in about a half hour, and trust me when you’re six this is the coolest thing ever. (Actually when you’re older too- I think my dad was always as excited about the trip as we were, and I rode it once with my grandma this year too just to reconfirm its awesomeness.)

So that was my first little adventure into the Miskolc surrounds.  The second one I’m posting almost just to freak the hell out of my animal rights activist friends-

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That’s right kids, my uncle took me hunting! To clarify, hunting in Hungary is not exactly the same as the “Ah wanna kill summin’ so I cayn be a man!” redneck stereotype one encounters in the US, but rather a necessary thing to do because there are no more natural predators in the country.  So every year the hunting clubs are given a quota by the government on how many wild boar, deer, elk, etc. they can shoot to keep the population at sustainable levels. (They do this in a lot of countries actually, like how kangaroos are culled every year in Australia.)

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Me in the watchtower in the picture above, taking in the view-image638We arrived over an hour before dusk and didn’t stay much after 9pm because there was no moon.  Saw two deer that came for the salt lick, but my uncle didn’t shoot because he was only going to shoot for elk if he saw one.  Actually the way to think of my uncle is he mainly uses hunting as an excuse to get out into the forest and observe how it changes day to day.  I have never met a person more in love with nature in general and animals in particular than him.

Tarcal (Tokaji Region)

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I am one of those people who has never, ever needed to question where my family is from.  If anyone asks on both sides of my family the roots are from a tiny Hungarian village called Tarcal, in the Tokaji wine region.  Here for more generations than we can easily keep track of Csendeses earned PhDs at a time when most people in Europe were peasant farmers, discussing things like law and science over good wine.

And then World War II came and pretty much everyone fled, and what the Russians didn’t steal was slowly acquired by the subsequent communist government.  But a small piece of land survived the turmoil, where my uncle still grows grapes every year.  Thus it was only natural for me to head out to Tarcal one afternoon with him, which is an hour’s drive from Miskolc.

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A ubiquitous stork nest spotted on the drive to Tarcal.  Back in the day having a stork build a nest on your chimney was considered good luck, even though I imagine it sucked to not be able to light your fire anymore.  So you still spot them everywhere, particularly in small villages, though they have now moved from chimneys to the tops of telephone poles.

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This house looks just like any other in Tarcal but is nonetheless important, as my maternal grandmother used to live here. (She dismissed my picture-taking on the grounds that the house doesn’t look like it did, not surprising considering we’re talking over 50 years ago.) Not photographed but to the left of this house is where my paternal grandmother used to live, meaning my grandmothers used to chat over the fence between them.  My paternal grandmother ended up marrying into my other grandmother’s extended family, actually, meaning my parents are very distant relatives.

It should also be noted that since everybody in my family history is connected to Tarcal it means both sides have some good gossip on the other and lots of drama.  For example, in my family technically all the girls are Catholic and all the boys are Protestant, because there have been several occurrences of a Catholic girl wanting to marry a Protestant boy, the families getting into a huge row about it, and finally working out this compromise.  I’m sure the wine didn’t hurt.

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And here, ladies and gents, is the family vineyard!  Not much, but a decent year is basically enough to ensure my family doesn’t need to buy wine and maybe sell some grapes to a bigger establishment (or at least I’m pretty sure how it works).  Unfortunately last year the grapes were hit by disease, meaning no harvest, but hopefully this year will be better.

image6051The beautiful view from the vineyard… towards the next vineyard… and then the vineyard after that… Trust me, the Tokaji region is a nice place to be and I’m not just saying that because I’m predispositioned to (it’s actually a World Heritage Site).

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And because it is a bit obligatory, me sipping some of the family wine at the vineyard. (I’m holding a blooming lilac branch in my other hand here, noteworthy because it’s several weeks early.) It’s an entertaining process to get a glass actually- one needs to go down to the cellar with a candle and extract it directly from the barrel, meaning it’s exactly cellar temperature when you sample it.  Oh, and there’s this thick dark green mold down there that my uncle was all too happy to break off and show to me because it is only found in this region of the world, striking because I can’t think of a prior circumstance where I was told to admire a variety of mold before.  But these are the reasons we go abroad, right?  Family roots, good wine, and mold.