Sunday, 31 August 2008

The kindness of couchpotatos

I am amazed, astounded, humbled by one very simple but profound fact - I had no idea that there is such a number of kind, generous and warm people in the world. I realise that this is the statement of a complete cynic, or at least an ex-cynic, but this the reality of my almost three-decaded life.

Of course when travelling there is an array of opportunities to meet people, but this may be easier for certain characters than for others. I am certainly of the type who finds it easier to be a loner, but this doesn't mean that I actually enjoy being on my own for long periods of time. Couchsurfing has, therefore, been a revelation for me. The opportunity to stay with 'ingenious' population, a chance to ask them questions about everything from how to get to the nearest cheap canteen to the philosophy of vegetarians in their country, gives you that link, a connection to the place. this is not just useful - which it undoubtedly is - but also relaxing, affirming...

So I am absolutely gobsmacked just how many kind souls there are out there in the world. From the very first time I stayed with the lovely young couple of Montpellier who showed me all the wonderful corners of the city and shared home-made pasta with me, to the spirit and wit of guys in Marseille who forced me to take sandwiches on the train that they've made especially for me, to hospitability of a young Lithuanian psychologist (who had hitch-hiked in Africa for six months - you say I am a brave soul!) and her mum who made me scrumptious breakfasts in the mornings, to the beauty and charm of two red-heads in Warsaw who welcomed me in their house just because we'd briefly met the same person during our travels...these people, and many others, have amazed me with their sense of adventure and their generousity - would you allow a complete stranger to stay in your house, give them your keys and say 'stay as long as you like'?!

I can't describe you just how grateful I am to all these people not just for allowing me to crash on their beds, but for all those light and deep and silly and such awakening conversations. I am thankful to the wild and thoughtful Australian guy I met in Vilnius who asked me many seemingly naive, but ultimately very profound questions, thus reminding me of my tiring tendency to plan. I remembered that what I really wanted from my travels was to go with the flow; to go to places and see people not because this is what you had planned on paper by reading stale guidebooks, but because this is simply how you feel like at that particular moment.

I realised yesterday that what really struck me about many of the people I have met in the last few weeks is their flexibility, their ability - and, importangly, their desire - to go with what other people have suggested; not to follow them but to be taken..It's this clay-like quality that I liked so much in them: they often know what they want from life (or even if they don't, you sense the steel of internal beliefs inside), but allow to be argued with, to make sponteneous decisions on the stop. They allowed me to stay in their houses for as long as I wanted, do what I wanted but also suggested to me some exciting and fun iteniraries. I love that about people. I would like that plasteline quality to rub off my sometimes rather stony exterior..I think things are changing.

The other day morning I got up in a small and cosy bedroom of my new couchsurfing friends in the 'picturesque' communist area of Nowa Huta in Krakow. It was grey and miserable outside. My plan that day was to go to Auschwitz..I felt uncertain about the idea - I knew my sensitivity to such places might mean that I would not sleep for several days after, but more importantly, I wasn't sure if the visit would actually add to my, admittedly limited, knowledge of this historic situation...But I'd had my bag packed, and was determined to go, when my friends' landlord came in, loudly wishing everyone good morning. After some 5 minutes of talking to me about absolutely nothing he said 'I live in a farm 50 kms from Krakow, you are welcome to come with me if you aren't sure about Auschwitz'. So I went!

That evening I was sitting in a bear kitchen of the farm, next to an ancient stove, having fish marinated in turmeric and chilli, talking about the importance of raising little children into big human beings, the philosophy of living in the moment and laughing till my face hurt to my host's silly jokes!

Believe it or not but my host was born and raised in Pakistan in a Zoroastrian family. He moved to the UK in early 20s, studied forestry in Wales, opened a teahouse in the Isle of White and, by pure accident, became a science teacher. He taught in schools in England and Spain for several years, and always wanted a farm. He hates heat and greatly prefers men. He is obviously considered a bit of a weirdo (if not hugely so) in the village: he is dark, he speaks scraps of Polish (can you even imagine a Pakistani speaking Polish?? definitely an imagine to cherish in darker times:)))), lives in the ruins of the farm and hosts hords of Korean children on its ground (he teaches in the international school in Krakow). He is also adored by the locals; I assume partly because he provides much needed enterntaintment to them, but mainly because of his unbelievably generous nature and love for life and laughter.

The time I spent on this small and beautiful Pakistani-Polish farm made me believe even stronger in the importance of making decisions when the time is right. How the hell do you know when such time comes? I have no idea, but I will know when that time comes; I hope so anyway:)..

Friday, 22 August 2008

Chocolate and cakes a la Baltic

There is, however, a more sophisticated, a more interesting side to the Estonian restaurant scene. And we had to drive whole (!) 2 hours to get there.

It was in the breezy, white and blue town of Haapsalu where we encountered this little wonder of a place - by pure chance, as you do, when you least expect it, as you do:) We were planning to have just a quick stop and, as it was an in-between hour of 3 pm, we were prepared to have any Estonian pork cutlet, but we were rewarded for our meat-only obstinence of the previous week..

As I walked in I knew straight away that the place would serve good food - firstly, this little cafe was decorated in the most charming and romantic style possible (stylish, elegant signs and menus; rustic but very cute plates and cups with big cherries and flowers painted on them; different chairs and tables in that light and airy end of the 19th century fashion); secodnly, the place was packed in spite of the odd hour and changable weather.

We ordered three dishes to begin with that sounded fiarly 'normal' on the menue, but came out to be exactly what I love about modern food: light, witty, with an awareness of its roots. We had a plate (no Masterchef jokes please!) of nutty and slightly moist rye bread, topped with lightly salted anchovies from the Baltic sea, a poached egg and thin slices of parmezan - I loved the taste, but I adored the fact that this was the kind of dish I used to have in heaps when little, but now it was sort of 'upgraded' to take in the world influences. I also had a delicious and quite unusual carrot quiche, served with sourcream; not like your classic French quiche, but something quite...Estonian:) - a very light omelette, baked as a pie with a crusty top. Jonathan had a salad of salmon and 'iced lettuce' (iceberg of course:). But it was the ending of our meal that completely blew us away - THE cakes.

In our usual piggy style we ordered three: two marengue like pies with the most airy and light cream I'd had in my life (honest!) and one cheesecake with the biscuit base that I was prepared to eat on its own. I admit the defeat, I cannot describe the beauty of these creamy creatures but they were so good and they made me so happy that I started breathlessly talking to the owner of the place (a smily Estonian woman who seemed to be melting under my compliments). We came back for more cakes the day later..Jonathan was trying to entice me to come back again (naughty;), but I was a bit worried that the lovely little waitresses would start suspecting something...Oh, and the place was called Muureaare (with dots over the letters). I promised the owner to spread the word around;), so if you are ever in Haapsaalu..hehe

The other place that is so special to me that I visit it every time we are in Tallinn is called Shokoladnitsa ( I can't remember the exact Estonian name). This place is all about the looks (with some chocolate thrown in of course;), but not he kind that many Estonian places seem to prefer - very modernestic, clean and spacious - no, this place is cluttered, slightly shabby and generally all over the place.

Whether you come in summer when there are wooden tables in the courtyard and a band playing violins, or in winter when it's pitch black outside and inside there are warm velvety table cloths and flickering candles, it always feels like you are visiting your aunty - the one that is quite old-fashioned, but still shows great style and loves feeding all her grandchildren with dark, syropy tea with home-made cakes....

As the name suggests, it is a cafe that serves chocolate, and not much else. How do you feel about hot, thick chocolate with some added orange and ginger; or gorgonzola and grappa (lovely actually - the really sweet chocolate goes really well with slightly souryness of the cheese); or, my favorite, rum and chilly?

Tallinn restaurants are, unfortunately and in my opinion, mostly about empty style and no soul, but then, when you do come across places that are a bit different, where the owners have thought about making people smile, not just look cool and pay the money, these places are on a par with the trendiest Crouch End boulangeries...even better.
I am leaving the comforts of my home town tomorrow and head for Riga and then Vilnius. My real adventure all the way to Turkey is about to start! I am nerveous, but am also very excited. Think of me warmly, will you?:)

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Little babushkas of Estonia

Tere, zdraste, hello. I have been away from my favorite blog for a while and I've missed it. Hopefully, there are others who would like to see it again too:)

I have been visiting my homeland, Estonia, for the last 10 days or so. The main reason for coming here was to attend the wedding of a very good friend of mine, but we have also done a bit of travelling, fooling around (the picture on the left taken in my brother's sauna!) and - naturlich - eating.

Food in Estonia is a very satisfying, although somewhat confusing, affair. On the one hand, do not even think of coming here if you don't eat pork, or even worse - horror - you are a vegetarian. Thus, everywhere you go the food is simple, heavy and tasty (Jonathan, for instance, really got to liking the following dish as a daily cheap lunch: barbequed chunks of pork, boiled or baked potatoes with various accompaniments, such as gurkins (obviously!), pickled cabbage, tomatoes, all helped with sweet and very dark black bread. The result of staying in this cold and flat country after a week is always the same - 5 kgs more each).

On the other hand you do really start missing the variety of food quite quickly, especially vegetables and, surprisingly, fish, or to be more specific fresh fish (you can eat yourself silly with various pickled herrings - which is, by the way, a traditional part of breakfast here, but why is it that you just can't buy ANYWHERE fresh mackerel, which you can easily get in canned form). But when you do come across small markets that sell the aforementioned, it is a very special experience...

The first few days in Tallinn we spent with Jonathan's parents, and on the second day we decided to show them a different, ie not pretty postcard Tallinn, and so we went to the suburbs - Lasnamae, the area solely consisting of high rising Soviet blocks. There, in between the usual supermarkets and kiosks, we visited a small market where my mum and myself used to shop some years ago when I was still living here as a red-haired teenager...It was such a curious experience to visit this market now, with my 'well-travelled' eyes and my well-fed stomach. The sellers are a mixture of usual retailers, ie traders that buy vegetables elsewhere and re-sell them (the majority of stuff is therefore non-Estonian, but good) and little babushkas selling a few jars of peas (recycling of used jars, tovarishi), or a few sprigs of dill.

They follow the highest of London trends - the food is organic (too expensive to buy chemicals, and the people don't know anything about them anyway), seasonal (what else can they grow?!), local (they bring their produce from their dachas, 5-20 kms away from Tallinn), without realising of course that there is anything trendy or particularly special about it. This is simply something they do to supplement their poor pensions (I doubt it that they have to pay anything for the place at the market).

We stopped and bought a 3-litre jar of blueberries from one old lady for about 2 pounds. She found us very curious - speaking English and taking pictures - especially when Teresa, Jonathan's mum who herself has a beautiful garden with many fruit and vegetables, asked her about the location of her garden and whether she too finds it tricky picking gooseberries.
I also bought some lovely golden honey from a cheerful Estonian woman (I should have explained that this area of Tallinn is almost 100% Russian, so it was so sweet to see an Estonian woman happily chatting to her Russian customers in her crisp and confident Russian). I am savoring to have my performed honeycomb a bit later, on a chilly autumn day, somewhere on a Russian long-distance train, with hot black tea..*Katya's dreamy eyes*

There is another market in Tallinn which I absolutely adore and always broadly smile when I go past it remembering many-many times I came past it when I was little. Not sure if you can call it a market, since it is simply a row of tables in a street in the centre in Tallinn, just as you enter the old town. This place has been here for ages: people come here for the 1st of September with their kids (it's the first day of school here, and everywhere in post-Soviet space) to buy long gladioli to present them to their teachers (don't you think it's a touching and wonderful tradition??); young guys get dark and elegant roses to smitten their new loves; little old ladies ask for tiny bouquets of peonies and chamomiles.

The principles of trade is very similar here to the market in Lasnamae - babushkas grow their own flowers, and come to sell them here to earn an extra kroon, to chat to their friends, to smile to passer-bys. This place is so different from all those beautiful and very self-aware florist shops that you find everywhere, including Estonia, where you can buy a well-constructed bouquet of flowers from Holland, but can never find a bunch of wild field chamomiles...I've retained this love for uncomplicated, wild flowers to this day, and often cut branches of rowan tree or random colourful flowers on busy London streets. After spending a few days in Tallinn with J's parents and my brother, we drove to the west of Estonia, towards plentiful serene islands and abundant lush northern forests. One thing is definite about this land - if you are looking for dramatic scenery and sunny days, this isn't the place to visit;

but if you want to breath in fresh and sparkly air of wild pine forest, rest your eyes on shallow and steel sea waters and are generally the kind who enjoys the melancholy of dumb weather and flickering candles, Estonia fits all the criteria.

We took a ferry to the largest island in Estonia (all 40 000 of its people!) and drove all the way to the most north-west point of the island, where we managed to badly mis-read the map (ok, I managed to misread the map) and found ourselves under torrential rain, amongst most spooky Soviet remains of some army buildings...We then spent a day recovering from our adventures in a swanky spa-hotel in civilized Kuresaare (I should have added above that this country is perfect for anyone in need of R & R and with a soft spot for saunas).

But all of that time I was thinking 'surely, in such rural countryside, with so many fields and water, there must still be people not lynched by the EU regulations, making simple Estonian cheeses and baking non-plastic bread!' I was doubting my conviction, as everywhere we went (with some noble exceptions, on which later..) we came across the all-familiar - tasty, but a bit dull - pork/potatoes/gurkins combination.

We did manage to find it though. By pure chance and only with 15 minutes to spare (we were on the way to the wedding) in the seaside town of Haapsalu, which we visited on return from Saaremaa. That was the whole fete, or a yarmarka, or a festival!

I was reassured to see various interesting cheeses (how about Saaramaa blue cheese?) and fluffy rye breads (with bacon bits inside..yum..), fresh water fish from all those Estonian rivers and numerous local crafts' makers (enormous wooden tables and delicate Scandinavian style jewellry).

The atmosphere was completed and properly Estonian-ied:) by a choir of prettily dressed children, shyly singing some folk and kiddies' songs. I felt relived, happy and confident in the future of this country and the remains of our holiday:)

Monday, 4 August 2008

Fish, sun and seabreeze - Aix & Marseille

Colours:pale yellow, mute burgundy, bursting green; smells: bright and warm of almost over ripen melons and velvety peaches, slightly sour and pleasant of local goat cheeses, as well as almost sickening but appetizing of far away Camembert, warm and homely aroma of roasting chickens; and shapes: glistening circles of pots with lavender honey -not quite golden with overtones of lilac, oblongs of cheerful aubergines- the colour of the night desert sky, stripy creamy courgettes and burning red chillies; and lots of rounds of course: from fat tomatoes to shy and tender apricots.

The Marche on the Place des pĂȘcheurs is the epitome of that carefully staged, but ultimately very real French market. It was inspiring to approach this little, old square early in the morning and see it slowly waking up by insistent local women with bags on wheels buying from the list, busy businessmen, sipping hot bitter coffee and only glancing at the unfolding show, curious and naively grinning tourists, ready to buy the first peach, watermelon, pepper in sight - to the obvious scorn of locals and glee of the sellers.

The visual picture of the market was enlivened by the gypsy-jewish-african sounds of a colourful little band (they were a curious mix of Israelis, French and a Japanese flute player). I joined the crowds to watch the band - tired but happy after all the shopping – sitting on the payment, listening to this curiously called 'Gettabang', wiggling my bum and loving the sounds so much that I bought their CD - to remember that warm and satisfying morning..

I enjoyed immensely the beauty and the sweet tastes of Provencal markets, however, at the end the place that I loved the most was half an hour by bus from Aix - so unbelievable close in distance and so far in atmosphere!

Marseille - with its grand architecture, smelly side streets, sparkling sea and the multitude of faces, is a perfect combination of what the rest of France can offer -elegance and poise, with a North African desire to live and sell. I loved the feeling of being safe, knowing that I was in a European country with expected rules and regulations, and experiencing the edge of a Moroccan medina all at the same time.
I know that Marseille is not to everyone's liking. In fact, I was told not that long ago by a well-travelled ex-army officer in his 60's that, when asked what was the most worrying, uncomfortable experience during his years of travels, said 'Marseille'. And the guy had been to the depths of Africa and Asia! Admittedly, this was some years ago and the town has cleaned up its act quite considerably since then, but the place still retains its reputation for being dangerous, dirty and unfriendly. I thought it was the most alluring and intriguing place during my travels in France!

Marseille is alive. It is like a young lover, who is rather penniless, but knows of its sexiness and is confident even when wearing old outfits. He is also warm and kind; it smiles at you and open its arms.

Marseille is also one bustling market.

I was staying with an amazing girl, Gaelle (who I met through couchsurfing - a gift to travellers like me who don’t like museums, but love little unknown bars) who took me to a small market in Cours Julien the day after I'd arrived. We went very early in the morning since Gaelle had to go to work after that. The market, which was selling a small selection of organic produce, was a very gentle introduction to the market 'scene' in Marseille. It was neat and pretty, and somehow reminded me of the markets in Britain. Maybe because if was so early in the morning, maybe because I was myself feeling happy and calm, but this market had the most relaxing atmosphere I had encountered so far. We had a quick coffee there and I bought a beautiful loaf of bread - paid d'epeautre. It was deliciously chewy and slightly nutty and wonderfully filling. It was made out of a Provencal ancient variety of spelt.

I was very lucky to be staying very close to the centre of Marseille and so my next stop was the bazaar of the town - the daily market in the Old Port. Because of its location I really expected it to be a tourist spectacle, fun and amusing, but ultimately unreal. I realised quickly how wrong I was. The market was basically a row of tables - about 15 in total - all placed alongside the seashore, with small fishing boats that supply the market bobbing happily behind the sellers. It was packed with all sorts of crowds, the majority of whom were in fact middle aged local women with perms and careful eyes. I think the reason why so few ‘outsiders’ were actually buying was partly because us, the visitors, wouldn't have a clue as to what to do with all these silver sea creatures! Books often talk about the ways to spot really fresh fish – that it should not really have any smell, but should have really bright eyes. Only now I understand what that really means. And the variety on those stalls! I spend a good half an hour walking around, trying to decipher the names of the fish, wanting to jot them down, to remember them for later. Useless! But I did ask questions.. I was very curious to see this old man selling little pink round..things..that looked like flat pearls. In fact they were 'doors to snail houses'. I had no idea that the shells even had doors:) but here you go. The man was selling them for luck (I found out that you can wear the little pink things as necklaces).

I was also very puzzled by this large and very ugly red fish that seemed to be battling for life for a lot longer than all other types around it. It was Rascasse, or a Scorpion fish, a prerequisite for a famous Bouillabaisse - the fish soup that is so famous around the world and that originates in Marseille (see the link on the left for the history of this fish stew and a recipe).

I had come to Marseille with an intention to try Bouillabaisse. All eateries in the old town sell this delicacy, however I had been told by several locals that none of the restaurants in the town centre were preparing the 'real stuff', ie they were buying some ready-made stock and adding fish to it later. To taste the real Bouillabaisse you have to pay 40-50 euros per head, I was told..I then asked for a recommendation for just a good fish restaurant and was told to go to Chez Fon Fon, outside the Old Town, near the beaches. I thought I'd just order some simple fish and forget the famous fish stew...

I just had to have the Bouillabaisse of course. Being in Marseille, dreaming of that fish wonder and not trying it! I paid 46 euros for the dish at the end - more than I'd ever paid for one single dish - but it was worth every penny.

The Fon Fon was an elegant, cool restaurant, with beautiful cutlery, crispy white table linen and customers, all well-off French aristocrats on holiday (I later found out that the place is a legend in France and had been visited by many well-known people). To say I didn't really match the crowds would be an understatement - I was wearing torn jeans and an old tshirt - but I didn't give a sh*t! I had my own table in the middle of the room, I ordered nothing else but the soup and some water and I spent the next hour enjoying the taste of this wonderfully delicate and such flavoursome dish...

The Bouillabaisse is served in two stages: first the waiter pours hot, dark red broth into your bowl - it is the liquid essence of the dish, where fish had been cooked earlier. It is full of colour and spice: fennel, pepper, fresh bay leaf, but the star is of course saffron (that, by the way, partly explains the cost of the dish – saffron is, as you know, the most expensive spice in the world; that coupled with the freshness and quantity of the fish..). Then the waiter brings a large silver platter with about 10 different types of fish – all whole, not boned, lightly cooked in the steaming broth. The waiter explains what each fish is. This is what I was having: St-Pierre (John Dory), Vive and Galinette (for which I couldn't find the translations I’m afraid), the afore-mentioned Scorpion fish and the one whose firm, gelatinous texture and flavoursome meat I liked the most - the eel.

The waiter then goes away and fillet the fish and brings it back to you, together with saffron infused, bright yellow and crumbly potatoes. You then eat all of this beautiful food, together with a traditional condiment of Rouille - mayonnaise with garlic and saffron - and small toasts that you can dip into your hot bouillon...I was happy:) I felt light and slightly drunk on all the fish I'd eaten, so I took a stroll along the beach, warming my skin under the hot, saffron-coloured Marseillaise sun...

This was my last day in the South of France and the fish, the sun and another - North African - market selling buttery flaky pastries on the way back to the apartment were a perfect ending to the trip. I did have a celebration later on in the evening though, just before taking my night train back to London, amongst the warmest, kindest people I'd met through Gaelle: amongst others there was a beautiful Algerian woman with witty and intelligent eyes, a 'real' Marsell..ian?:) with the accent that I found very difficult to understand but whose soft gestures and kind heart were very easy to comprehend, a little French girl - a designer making cloths upstairs, a Turk who later gave me a lift to the station in his fast bike, and the main man of the house - Tef, the most generous and funny and clever host we could have; he is originally from Istanbul, but has lived in Paris and London, but fell in love with Marseille and has spent almost 10 years in the area. He made us heaps of freshly grilled sardines, which we ate with lots of green salad with garlicky dressing, baguettes, whilst drinking cheap cold white wine and Pastis. I said I would be back, soon:)

This thread is probably the longest so far, but I am now back in London and am leaving for Estonia in a couple of days time. AfFter spending a couple of weeks with my bratelka, muz and the family I will be off again, on my own, for the last - and the main - leg of the trip, Turkey is the first main focus. I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to it and how much I have enjoyed the last two months. Of course I have had numerous points of melancholy, some loneliness and frustration, but I have been able to see the sky, notice the small print of life (oh God, the moment of pompousness are unavoidable!) and have time and energy to look at people, to talk to them. You can say 'but obviously, you haven't been working, you lazy thing, for the last 10 weeks!' - yes, I feel lucky: I had found the way to take this time off, to be on my own and with other people; I also have an amazing man at home, who understands my desire and need for freedom and exploration and who I can't wait to see every time I'm away for more than a day:) What will happen on my return? I have no idea, but I feel certain that things will fall into places, I'll find the way..