Category Archives: Food and drink

Portugal, part one — the Dão wine region: heavy on biking, light on wine.

This past week, Alastair and I took a vacation to Portugal. It had been on the top of my list of places to visit for years, and since we hadn’t gotten a chance to go while we were in London, as soon as Al got the opportunity for vacation, we took it. (Incidentally, for my insane husband, who has traveled more than anyone I know, Portugal was his 99th country visited. 99th!! We think he’s going to hit 100 this summer when we go to Belize. Like I said: insane (in the membrane)). Anyway, our trip can be neatly divided into three parts: 1) the Dão wine region; 2) Sintra; and 3) Lisbon. So, without further ado, I give you: Portugal, part one: the Dão.

Azulejo, Nelas train station

Azulejo, Nelas train station

In the Dão, we hoped to bike through lush vineyards while stopping frequently to taste wine. That was pretty much our entire plan. But, as we soon found out, things would not go exactly to plan.

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Making the best of things = kind of our strong suit.

Immediately upon arriving in Portugal, we took a couple of trains from Lisbon to Santa Comba Dão, the tiny town where we’d be staying at an agro-tourism cabin. We have no real interest in agro-tourism, unless you consider drinking large amounts of wine to be agro-tourism, but the place we were staying, Quinta da Abelenda, advertised that it was situated near a bunch of vineyards, and it rented out bikes, so it sounded perfect for our purposes. We pictured ourselves biking idly along country roads, stopping every couple of kilometers to booze it up in some beautiful vineyard. I had a really clear vision of us laughing over a baguette and clinking wine glasses in a sun-dappled meadow. What a fool I was!

Quinta da Fata

Quinta da Fata

We arrived in Santa Comba Dão quite late at night and went to bed as soon as we got in, after lighting the cozy wood stove in the cabin. The next morning, we were eager to get a move on our wine adventure, so we asked the proprietor of the establishment what route we should take. He seemed utterly baffled by the idea that visitors to the well-known wine region in which he owns tourist lodgings would be interested in tasting wine. He literally — literally — scratched his head with confusion and told us that it would perhaps be possible, in some theoretical sense of the word, to taste wine, in the same way that going to Jupiter is possible. But he didn’t have any clear ideas on how we would go about doing it.

Wood stove in our cabin

Wood stove in our cabin

We decided, since we had gotten a late start on the day, to just try for a full day of wine tasting the next day, and take the bikes out instead, assuming that we’d pass at least a few wineries along the way. Our cabin was situated along the Ecopista do Dão, a paved biking and walking path that stretches ~50 km (~30 miles) from Santa Comba Dão to the bustling city of Vizeu. So we set off on our bikes for a leisurely journey.

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Fifty kilometers and zero wineries later, we were crabby, sore, hot, starving, and thirsty. We walked our bikes around Vizeu, a pretty disappointing town, considering the vast effort expended to get there, until we found a restaurant, where we shoved food into our mouths like urchins. When it was time to go, I found that my butt was actually too tender from the last three hours of biking in jeans to remount a bike, so we found a bus to take us back to Santa Comba Dão. After quite a to-do involving taking the wheels and the handlebars off the bikes so that they’d fit in the hold of the bus, and then struggling to put everything back together again once we arrived at our destination, we sighed with relief to be back in Santa Comba Dão, butts intact. However, we found that the bus had dropped us off quite far from the cabin, and since I physically could ride no more, we had to walk our bikes several miles back to the cabin, as it was getting dark. Then we got lost. I think the low point was walking our bikes in the pitch dark along the side of a highway, semis and cars roaring by us, with no clear idea of where the hell we were. I should also add that we were hungry, I was cold, and, as I’ve already mentioned, my butt hurt. Not my finest moment.

Ecopista path

Ecopista path

The next day, we awoke with renewed vigor, determined to go wine tasting if it killed us. Long story short: the Dão did not feel like opening its welcoming arms to two eager wine tourists, and we were stymied at every turn. Long story long: We took a train to a town called Nelas, where we had heard that there might be wineries that actually allow people to taste their wines. After fruitlessly driving around in a taxi and passing several wineries, none of which were open, we finally made it to Quinta da Fata, a beautiful winery that, lo and behold, had wine available for tasting! [Cue heavenly choir!]

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Although Quinta da Fata does not do traditional “tastings,” the bottles are very cheap (and very good!), so they encourage people to just buy a bottle and sit outside to drink it. So we did that, and it was lovely. The woman who owns the place was very kind and gave us an extensive tour of the winemaking facilities, the house, and the bed and breakfast, all of which were empty when we were there. After sitting in the sun, admiring the view, and sipping some wine, we left feeling optimistic about our prospects for finding other nice wineries in the area. That optimism ended up being misplaced, because the next place we went, while open, told us they couldn’t do a tasting because the wines “weren’t the right temperature” (huh?), so we just bought a couple of bottles and took the train back to Santa Comba Dão, accepting defeat.

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

That evening, we sat out on our porch at the cabin, admired the horses, dogs, chickens, and cats that came to say olá, drank some of the wine we had bought, ate prosciutto and sheep’s cheese, and read. Here’s a fairly uneventful (but short) video of what our evening looked like.

Once we accepted that we were not going to have the wine tasting experience we had anticipated, a burden was lifted, in a way, and we felt free to enjoy just sitting around and watching the world go by. I think there’s some sort of life lesson in there, about keeping expectations low, not trying to plan everything, going with the flow, and so on. Lesson learned, I guess. I think we had such high expectations for wine tasting in Portugal because we had done a similar thing in the Wachau Valley of Austria in 2010 and it was magical. As I recall, everything was easy and charming and boozy and fun. But actually, re-reading my blog post from that trip, I see now that a similar thing happened then, in which our expectations, at least at first, did not meet reality, and we had to adjust. Lots of the wineries were closed, we were turned away by an angry ogre at one of them, and it poured rain on us as we were biking. I had sort of forgotten about all of that. I guess it’s easy to forget mishaps in the past because they all get lost in the fond haze of vacation nostalgia.

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Overall, though, the Dão was beautiful and relaxing. We did eventually taste some nice wines, and I’ll never forget our cozy cabin with the wood stove and friendly horses. I’m calling it a success!

Next post: Portugal, part 2: Sintra.

Expat Thanksgivings

I have celebrated many a Thanksgiving outside of the United States. My first foreign Thanksgiving was in 2003 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I was with some of my best friends from college and we were on a weeklong vacation from studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. We were all so caught up in the excitement of being in Rio for the first time (read: drunk), none of us remembered that it was Thanksgiving until close to midnight on Thursday, at which point we left whatever sweaty club we were patronizing and made our way to an open-air pizza parlor and ordered a bunch of pizzas, which we decided would have to substitute for turkey. In 2005, I celebrated Thanksgiving in Rio again, with my dear friend Julia. We met some Americans in a bar and hunted around until we found an Irish pub serving something that approximated turkey. Chicken, maybe? I don’t really remember. Alcohol may have been involved in the decision. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)

I also spent Thanksgiving 2010 in Brazil, this time in São Paulo. I got together with a bunch of friends — mostly Brazilian but with a few Canadian, English, and German people thrown into the mix, as well — and we cooked a proper Thanksgiving dinner with a real turkey, apple pie, and mashed potatoes. Pumpkin was nowhere to be found (seriously, Brazil?) so we did without, but I seem to recall that there were a lot of Brazilian goodies to be had, like brigadeiros, which make up for a lot.

And last year, Al and I celebrated Thanksgiving in Cape Town, to which I transported my labor of love, my from-SCRATCH pumpkin pie. This year, I’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving in London, with Al and my cousin John and a bunch of John’s friends. It’ll be the first non-US Thanksgiving I’ve had with any of my extended family in attendance, so that’ll be a nice change.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - always a classic!

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving – always a classic!

Expat Thanksgiving is always an odd experience — especially if you’re in a place where it’s hot in November and essential Thanksgiving food supplies are scarce, a la Brazil — but it can also be a really unique, wonderful way to celebrate the holiday. The thing is, when you celebrate Thanksgiving  outside of America, odds are, you’ll be spending it with at least some non-Americans who are interested in the holiday and think it’s a cool idea. And that’s kind of awesome, isn’t it? It’s cool to be able to share Thanksgiving dinner with people who aren’t gathering just for the turkey or pie or football or because that’s just what you do on the fourth Thursday in November, but because they value and admire the spirit behind the holiday: the idea of getting together with people you love to express gratitude. I love Thanksgiving because even though it’s a very American holiday (and yes, Canadian, too, but Canadians will readily agree that it’s a much bigger deal in America), the concept behind it translates universally: giving thanks for what we have. I love that non-Americans can get into the spirit of Thanksgiving just as easily and authentically as Americans. It’s just a lovely holiday all around.

Speaking of gratitude, I saw this video a while ago. Take the seven minutes and watch it, if you haven’t seen it already. It’s about the huge happiness boost we experience from expressing gratitude to the people in our lives who we love. I think Thanksgiving is the perfect, non-cheesy opportunity to grab your own happiness boost by letting your loved one(s) know that you appreciate them, don’t you? This year, as always, I’m really grateful for my husband, my parents, my cousins, and my friends, who, in my completely unbiased opinion, are all the absolute best. I’m also exceedingly grateful to still be plugging away at making my dream of becoming a professional writer come true. (Fittingly, today I completed 50,000 words in the third manuscript I’ve written since quitting my lawyer job a little over a year ago, so things are coming up Stephanie over here). So, all in all, I’m feeling good and grateful today. Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

 

Corsica

We were lucky enough to spend our vacation in Corsica this past week, staying at the lovely villa owned by the family of Al’s cousin’s wife, Camille. She’s French and her grandfather bought the property decades ago (before it was cool, in other words). Not a bad investment!

View from villa of town

View of town, from villa

View from balcony, villa

Another view from balcony of villa

The villa is located in Morsiglia, in Cap Corse, the northern tip of Corsica. This part of the island is known for being rugged, with sweeping views, winding roads, steep hills, and rocky beaches.

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Cows on the beach, Barcaggio

Cows on the beach, Barcaggio

Wind farm

Wind farm

Corsica is an interesting place. It’s a territory of France, even though geographically, it’s closer to the Italian mainland. France has been in charge since 1769 (before that, Corsica was briefly independent, and before that, it was ruled by the Genoese). Although everyone speaks French (seeing as Corsica is, technically, part of France), the island also retains Corsu as its native language, although not many people (i.e., perhaps only 10% of Corsicans) speak Corsu natively anymore, and it is a “potentially endangered language,” according to UNESCO. Corsu, as far as we could tell, is basically Italian with lots of u’s and j’s and h’s. According to our Lonely Planet guide, though, you should never even hint that Corsu sounds pretty much exactly like Italian, because the Corsican people will become deeply offended. The Corsican people, according to our Lonely Planet guide, get deeply offended by many things, including foreigners attempting to speak Corsu to them. (By the way, I’d be willing to hazard a guess that the author of the Lonely Planet guide might have tried to speak Corsu to people and received a blank stare back either because he was butchering the language or because not a lot of people actually speak it.) Anyway, almost everyone we encountered on the island seemed quite friendly and not prickly (although we didn’t attempt any Corsu, just to be safe). Most road signs are in French and Corsu, although we did see a few signs with the French spray-painted over and/or crossed out, which I suppose is some sort of Corsu nationalist statement, although I’m not sure.

Signs in Corsu

Signs in Corsu, with smaller French sign

We spent most of our time in Corsica eating, hiking, sleeping, and lazing on the beach. Pretty great. I especially enjoyed local Corsican cured meat (they’re known for their charcuterie, especially coppa) and sheep’s milk cheese. We also sampled some Corsican wine, some of which is quite good, especially the Muscat. I realized later that drinking three glasses of Muscat a night is probably the equivalent of injecting sugar crystals directly into my blood, which explains why my jeans were tight when I got back to London, but dang, it was tasty.

Domaine Pietri vineyards

Domaine Pietri vineyards

As with any vacation, there were a couple of wrinkles in the trip, including the fact that we were redirected to Milan on the way there because our plane had a crack in its windshield (good job, EasyJet) and the fact that I suffered from a mysterious stomach ailment for half of the trip (but once I recovered, things were great). Overall, though, we had a great time and I’m happy we got to see this beautiful little corner of the world. À vedeci, Corsica!

Cape Town, for the last time

No Book Review Monday today; I’m in the middle of two very long books and hope to be done with at least one of them by next week. Until then, please enjoy some pretty pictures of Cape Town, Constantia, and Stellenbosch. Also, check out last week’s double-header Book Review Monday if you’re jonesing for some book talk.

Vineyard Hotel and Spa, Cape Town

Vineyard Hotel and Spa, Cape Town

I spent this past weekend in Cape Town with my friend Ali. The visit was packed with food, wine, and beautiful scenery and I tried to soak up as much as I could. This might well be the last time I ever step foot in Cape Town, since Al and I are moving to London for three months starting very soon (I know!).

Constantia

Constantia

Vines

Vines

On Friday night, after a lovely day of wine-tasting in Constantia (a beautiful suburb full of wineries just outside Cape Town), Ali and I met two of her friends, Victoria and Tim, for a winter tasting menu at La Colombe, one of the most well-regarded restaurants in the area. I had been looking forward to eating there for a while and it didn’t disappoint. We all opted for the five-course dinner with wine pairings, and it was pretty spectacular.

Fish course - kingklip and mussel

Fish course – kingklip and mussel

This involved corn and chicken

This was a delicious combo of chicken and sweet corn. Nom.

Cheese plate

Cheese plate

The next day, the four of us, plus Ryan, another friend of Ali’s, embarked on a wine-tasting adventure in Stellenbosch, and it was glorious. We tasted wine at DeMorgenzon, and then had lunch (and wine) at the fabulous Restaurant Jordan, and then went on to do one more wine tasting at the stunning Delaire Graff. (Photos in reverse chronological order.)

Mountain, view from Delaire Graff

View from Delaire Graff

Delaire Graff

Delaire Graff

Delaire Graff

Delaire Graff – view from tasting room

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch

Hand-picked cheese selection at Jordan

Hand-picked cheese selection at Jordan – awesome.

Springbok tartare at Jordan

Springbok tartare at Jordan – that poached egg was perfection.

DeMorgenzon

DeMorgenzon

Stellenbosch

DeMorgenzon

View from tasting room at DeMorgenzon

View from tasting room at DeMorgenzon

At the end of the day, Ali and I were too tired and full of wine to do much more than order in some pizza and watch TV, which felt like a fitting end to an indulgent day. The next day, we went for breakfast at The Gardener’s Cottage in Cape Town and then I hopped on a plane back to Joburg.

Omelette at The Gardener's Cottage, Cape Town

Omelette at The Gardener’s Cottage, Cape Town

Sigh. I’m going to miss Cape Town. There’s nowhere else quite like it, is there? At least I can console myself with Joburg’s many delights, which include…my TV. And my knitting bag. Ah, well.

Stay tuned for updates on our next international relocation, coming soon.

Our North American sojourn

Last night, we got back from our whirlwind trip to Ottawa, DC, and DF, and boy, were we tired. Al calculated that our total flying time for this trip was 54 hours, with at least six additional hours of airport time (looking at you, Dulles, you monster), which means we traveled an average of five hours for each day of our trip. Yikes. But you know what? It was SO worth it. We had so much fun, and we packed each day to the gills with friends and family, which was the whole point of this North American adventure.

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Here, in brief, is what we got up to on each leg of our trip.

Ottawa

In Ottawa, we attended the lovely wedding of Tom and Kristy. Tom is one of Al’s closest friends from high school in Canada, and Al was a groomsman in the wedding, which ended up meaning zero responsibilities and lots of perks for him and his fellow groomsmen, since the bride and her attendants were totally on top of things. Lucky guys.

Al and me at the wedding

Al and me at the wedding – Brittania Yacht Club, Ottawa

The bride and groom

The beautiful bride and handsome groom 

We were lucky enough to hang out with the newlyweds and some other friends after the wedding and we also got to spend quality time with Al’s brother Calum and his adorable cat, Mick Jagger. This cat is seriously The Cutest. Look at these photos of Jaggy and her lion haircut and look me in the eye and tell me she is not the CUTEST cat in the world. I dare you.

Watching the Real Housewives of Orange County

Watching the Real Housewives of Orange County

Chillin'

Chillin’

All in all, Ottawa was fun and relaxing, and after five years of visits to the city, I finally got to see it not covered in a solid foot of snow and ice. It’s much nicer in the summer (and I can go running without my ipod literally freezing!).

DC

In DC, our main goals were to see as many of our friends as possible, and to buy things. Well, maybe that second one was just my goal, but I succeeded handsomely! I pretty much raided Forever 21, snatching up anything vaguely nautical, including a pair of not-so-vaguely-nautical sailor shorts. I wore them to the bar to meet our friends, and as we were walking there, I asked Al, “Am I too old to wear these?” He said no, but I’m still not sure. I sort of just choose to ignore the whole “21” admonition built into Forever 21. I think it should be renamed Forever 30-ish, so ladies like me can feel good about buying cheap clothes there. Anyway. DC was great! We saw lots of people, ate lots of good food, and enjoyed the hot, muggy weather and low-level chaos that makes DC DC.

DC breakfast

DC breakfast

Seeing our friend Tanya at The Passenger. Note my nautical attire.

Seeing our friend Tanya at The Passenger. Note my nautical attire.

DF (Mexico City)

The final stop on our North American tour was Mexico City, where we attended the beautiful wedding of Anna and Íñigo. Anna is one of my closest law school (and DC) friends, and she and Íñigo are some of our favorite people to go salsa dancing with. Their wedding was held at a gorgeous museum called El Museo Franz Mayer, in the heart of Mexico City, and included awesome food, tiny jugs of Mezcal, and lots of salsa dancing. So much fun.

At the wedding

At the wedding

While in El DF, Al and I also got up to some sightseeing. We were staying at a hotel in a very hipstery neighborhood called La Roma. Just how hipstery was it? Well, our first night there, we went to a Japanese restaurant where people sat outside on kegs and a wandering gypsy band played klezmer music as we ate, so… you tell me. Also, Al wore this, just to blend in:

Just hanging out in La Roma.

Just hanging out in La Roma.

We also spent an afternoon sightseeing near the Zocalo, downtown, where we wandered around  the Templo Mayor, the ruins of a prominent temple in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (right on top of which the Spanish built Mexico City — how considerate of them). I was especially interested in seeing the Museo del Templo Mayor, where they keep such gory Aztec relics as “face knives” and other accoutrements related to human sacrifice. It was fun to celebrate the part of my heritage that involves ripping out people’s still-beating hearts and sacrificing them to the sun god. You know how it goes.

Stone skulls

Stone skulls, Museo del Templo Mayor

Cool door

Cool door

Me and a giant Mexican flag

Me and a giant Mexican flag

Helpful pamphlets at the Cathedral downtown. Our favorite was "100 questions for a Mormon."

Helpful pamphlets at the Cathedral downtown. Our favorite (not pictured) was “100 questions for a Mormon.”

We also ate lunch at Pujol, number 17 on the current list of the world’s 50 Best Restaurants. We were expecting great things from Pujol, but we walked away a bit underwhelmed, for a few reasons. First of all, if lunch is going to cost $260 USD, you want it to be spectacular. Not just good, but spectacular. Lunch at Pujol, though, was just okay. Some of the dishes were superlative (for example, their reimagined tres leches dessert was to die for), but others were just meh, and still others were downright, well, gross. Okay, so maybe I’m not the most adventurous eater, and call me old-fashioned, but if I’m eating at a fancy restaurant, I don’t want to be eating ant larvae. Yet, guess what I ate at Pujol? An ant larvae taco. (Note to self: next time, after lunch, don’t google the taco ingredients you didn’t understand. Escamoles are not a vegetable, turns out). We also ate a soup made out of ants. Which begs the question: was there a sale on ants at the market that morning, or were they just messing with us? Or both? Also, I could have done without the fried frog leg, bone still in, which was one of the courses. Blech.

But, some of the dishes were nice (and photogenic).

Delish dessert

Delish dessert

Tiny, very expensive, very cute fish taco

Very tiny, very expensive, very cute fish taco

After our Pujol experience, Al and I decided we’re kinda done with tasting menus for a while. Especially considering that the rest of the food we ate in Mexico was outrageously good (and affordable). I wanted to stuff tacos and queso fresco and frijoles in my bag and bring it all back to South Africa, the land where they think this is an example of authentic Mexican food:

"Da border?" Really, South Africa?

“Da border?” Really, South Africa?

So, now we’re back in Joburg, it’s freezing cold (I’m wearing a hat indoors), and I’m missing the sunny climes of my home continent. I’m really glad we took our trip, because it was a great reminder of the wonderful people (and food, and public transportation, and cheap clothing) that we have to look forward to when we eventually move back to the US. For now, though, I’m going to enjoy my remaining time here in SA by eating a lot of steak and biltong.

Hasta luego!

Namibia

For our one-year wedding anniversary, Al and I took a long weekend trip to Swakopmund, Namibia, and it was definitely one of the most unique places we’ve been in Southern Africa.

A Namibian tapestry

Namibian tapestry

On a Thursday morning, we flew from Joburg to Windhoek, the Namibian capital, which is a very slow-paced little capital indeed. It has a distinct small-town vibe to begin with, plus, for reasons we couldn’t figure out, everything was closed when we visited, including all of the museums. It was kind of creepy, actually, walking around this capital city at ten AM on a weekday and seeing almost no other people on the streets. I turned to Al and asked if there had been some sort of apocalypse memo that we missed, and he wasn’t sure. Jury’s still out.

Corner of Michael Scott and Fidel Castro.

Did I mention the street names in Windhoek are also weird? See, e.g., corner of Michael Scott and Fidel Castro.

We did manage to visit one of the few landmarks that was actually open, the historic Christ Church, a sandstone Lutheran church built in the early 20th century.

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We spent most of the rest of the day sitting at the open-air Zoo Cafe (a curious name, given that Windhoek does not have a zoo), and then eating and drinking at a nearby beer garden, which had some of the most delightful German-to-English menu translations I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

Like, such as.

Like, such as.

That afternoon, we caught a shuttle to Swakopmund, a beach resort in northwest Namibia that’s smack in the middle of the Namib desert. Swakopmund is this weird mix of Germany (it was founded in 1892 as the main harbor for German South-West Africa) and Africa. It has something for everyone: palm trees, desert, beach, wiener schnitzel, beer, wine, pastries, game meat, surfing, adventure sports, seafood — you name it. Al and I were particularly excited about the food: Al ate wiener schnitzel at least once a day, and I ate a lot of fresh fish and steak. Yum!

Brauhaus, Swakopmund

Brauhaus, Swakopmund

Pastries at Cafe Anton, the cafe below our hotel (Hotel Schweizerhaus)

Pastries at Cafe Anton, the cafe below our delightfully 1970s hotel (Hotel Schweizerhaus)

Since Swakopmund is surrounded by desert, we decided to try a desert-based sport: sand boarding. Sand boarding is exactly what it sounds like: you get on a snowboard and go down a sand dune. It takes some getting used to — it took me two runs and several falls on my butt/head to get the hang of it — but once you can balance and glide down the sand, it’s super fun.

Me, sand boarding

Me, sand boarding – doesn’t look like I am moving, but I am. Trust me.

And Al discovered he has a hidden talent for flying down sand dunes on a piece of plywood. He got some serious air, dudes.

(100)

Overall, we loved Swakopmund and wished we had been able to spend a bit more time there. But I’m glad we got to see yet another country in Southern Africa before our time in this part of the world is up.

Jozi Craft Beer Fest

Yesterday, Al and I and some friends went to the Jozi Craft Beer Fest. The event was set up in a field, and consisted of a bunch of tents selling beer and food, plus a lot of watered-down, South African hipsters. Lots of brand-name beanies and skinny jeans and “fun” glasses. Bless their hearts; they’re trying.

Hipster alert

Hipster alert

South African craft beer, in my humble opinion, is okay, not great, but the event was still fun. (Now I can’t even remember the names of the beers that I tried and liked, but I think Devil’s Peak might have been one of them? Sorry, South African beer fans. Nothing made a huge impression.) It was just fun to sit in the sun and drink some beer.

Yay beer

Yay beer

It got a little cold

It got a little cold in the afternoon

So, that was our Saturday. Today, we’re off to the Winter Sculpture Garden at the Cradle of Humankind, where we’ll be sampling food and wine (and sculptures, I guess).

Hope everyone’s having a great weekend!

Cape Town and Durban

I’m back from a lovely, week-long vacation with my cousin Amanda (and, for the last two days, Al). I met Amanda at the Joburg airport on Monday — she had flown in from San Francisco, via London — and we went straight to Cape Town for four days. While there, we got up to the usual Cape Town things: Table Mountain, Cape Point, the Cape of Good Hope, wineries, penguins, seafood, shopping. It was glorious, as expected.

Here are a few photos of our visit:

View from Table Mountain

View from road to Table Mountain

Camps Bay

Camps Bay

Beachside playground

Beachside playground

Amanda and me at Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch

Amanda and me (and a dog) at Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch

Water lilies at Stark Conde winery, Stellenbosch

Water lilies at Stark Conde winery, Stellenbosch

Stark Conde

Stark Conde

Great views along the Cape

Great views along the Cape

Baby ostrich being petted

Baby ostrich being petted

Beach ostrich

Wild ostrich

Penguins

Penguins

The ostrich farm we visited was a total kick. Ostriches are weird looking to begin with, but baby ostriches are both extremely weird AND cute. They look like baby dinosaurs. I took a short video of some of the babies:

Hilarious!

Amanda and I had a great time in Cape Town, but on Friday morning, we left and flew two hours northeast to Durban, the third largest city in South Africa, known for its beaches, sub-tropical climate, Indian food, and adventure sports. We stayed at the truly lovely Rosetta House, where Al met us later that evening.

View from our veranda, Rosetta House

View from our veranda, Rosetta House

Durban was awesome. It’s a very relaxed, pretty city, with beautiful homes, lots of lush green plant life, warm beaches, and cute outdoor cafes and bars. One of the things that struck me most about Durban is how ethnically integrated it is, as compared to Cape Town or Joburg or, really, any other South African city or town I’ve ever visited. I was pleasantly surprised to see people of different races eating at the same restaurants, drinking at the same bars, hanging out on the same beaches. I know that sounds sort of sad, that this is something I’d be surprised by, but South Africa, despite its claims of being a rainbow nation, can often feel very segregated. Durban was a refreshing change. Al and I kept remarking on it (“Oh, wow, there are actually white people AND black people AND Indian people at this [bar/restaurant/beach/garden]!”) which tells you a little something about what we’re used to in Joburg.

We went to the beach on Saturday, which was beautiful and relaxing. The waters of the Indian Ocean in Durban aren’t as warm as they were in Mozambique, but they weren’t freezing, either (unlike the water in Cape Town). I went for a dip and came out feeling refreshed (and salty).

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On Saturday night, we ate at 9th Avenue Bistro, which offers a six-course wine pairing tasting menu, and it was fantastic. The food and service were outstanding; however, the ambience was a bit dampened by the fact that the restaurant looks out over a parking lot. Oh, well. Still highly recommended!

On Sunday, our last day in Durban, we spent a few hours wandering around the gorgeous Durban Botanical Gardens, which were heavenly. The Gardens are Africa’s oldest surviving botanical gardens and they are very well maintained. I took a ton of pictures because everything was so beautiful.

Giant tree (and Al)

Giant tree (and Al)

Bamboo copse

Bamboo copse

Gingko seed?

Gingko seed?

Bees on dahlia

Bees on dahlia

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One of my favorite parts of the Gardens was a little pond that was filled with all sorts of interesting birds, including an African Spoonbill, a giant pelican (which I think might be a pink backed pelican?), a big red-beaked goose, and several kinds of ducks and ducklings.

Pelican

Pelican (Pink Backed, I think)

Paddle beaked bird

African Spoonbill

So, this was a trip of many odd bird sightings: pelicans, spoonbills, ostriches, penguins, and, while we were in Cape Town, a flock of wild flamingos flying overhead. Pretty cool.

Now I am back in Joburg and beginning to acclimate to the chilly weather and the fact that I have to, you know, start working again. Amanda is on safari now and will be back in Joburg on Thursday, so I have a little more cousin time to look forward to. In the meantime, it’s back to the grind: blogging and writing. Luckily, I happen to really enjoy the grind. Vacation is great, but the grind is good, too.

Abstaining vs. moderating

I really enjoy Gretchen Rubin’s blog (and book) The Happiness Project. For one thing, I find Rubin quite inspiring; she’s another former lawyer who abandoned the law to become a writer, and she turned a personal betterment project into an incredibly successful (and lucrative) happiness empire. She also sent me a very kind and encouraging email when I wrote to her telling her that I, too, wanted to leave the law to seek a career in writing, which was so nice.

I think much of what Rubin says about happiness jives with me because she comes at happiness from a bit of a Type A, planner’s perspective, which resonates strongly with me, an ESFJ personality type who loves control and order, and also because one of her fundamental tenets is to know thyself, which suggests that everyone’s formula for individual happiness is going to be a bit different. The idea is that if you know your own preferences, weaknesses, and ways of being, you can better make choices for yourself that will boost your happiness. In other words, one happiness size does not fit all. I love that. It’s so empowering, this idea that we can tailor our choices to maximize our own happiness, isn’t it?

My happy place

My happy place

To help people to get to know themselves better, Rubin offers a number of quizzes that are designed to help identify certain fundamental personality traits that may have a large bearing on happiness. One of these quizzes is: are you an abstainer or a moderator?

The first time I took this quiz, I thought, “I am a classic abstainer. I do really well when I make temptations off-limits to myself, and I thrive on bright lines and rules.” But after the last few months of experimenting with abstention from alcohol and other foods, I’m starting to question whether the abstainer-moderator divide is really so black and white. As I was doing my month-long detox from alcohol, for instance, I felt empowered by its starkness. Completely cutting out booze was not that hard for me, but I felt sure that it would have been difficult to only allow myself one drink at each social occasion, for example. While I still think that may be true on the margins, now that I’m off the detox, I’ve found moderation with alcohol to be far easier than it’s ever been in the past. I’ve lowered my tolerance significantly, so now it’s easy for me on a night out to have one or two drinks and then stop, rather than three or four. So I’d say that alcohol is now firmly something that I’m able to consume in moderation.

However, there are some things that I absolutely cannot do in moderation. Frosting, for example. Non-organic peanut butter. Honey-mustard pretzels. Raisins. (I once had a run-in with a Sam’s Club industrial sized bag of raisins at a friend’s house during a high school study group session. Oh, the stomach cramps.) The list goes on (unfortunately). With other foods, though — chocolate, cookies, candy — it’s easy for me to have just a little and then stop. This strikes me as odd, because it seems that the part of my brain that allows me to have one bite of chocolate should be the same part of my brain that regulates peanut butter consumption, and yet, put me in a room with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon, and all hell will break loose. Why can’t my brain work the same way across foods? Dammit, brain! There’s undoubtedly some deep, dark psychological reason for this inconsistency, but it honestly might just come down to the fact that peanut butter is so gall-derned delicious.

In any case, thinking about abstention vs. moderation is a useful exercise, not only when trying to lose weight, but when thinking longer-term about happiness. I know that in the longer term, I am much happier when I cook healthy meals at home, even though going out to a restaurant for a decadent meal may provide a very short-term happiness boost. Learning to balance the enjoyment I get from going out to eat with the satisfaction I feel from eating wholesomely at home is one of the things I’ve gotten better at over the past several months, and that’s a good thing. I consider it a sign of progress that I am able to float between abstention and moderation, choosing one strategy or the other depending on the situation. But there are still slip-ups. To err is human, right? Anyway, I guess this is all part of growing up. One of these days, I’ll figure it out (hopefully before I die of a peanut butter overdose).

So what are you, an abstainer, a moderator, or something in between? And am I the only one who loses my sh*t around those Snyder’s honey-mustard pretzel bite things? (Thanks Gretchen Rubin for the food for thought!)

Detox-Retox

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Al and I did a month-long booze detox, which also included elements of abstention from other temptations, including candy (for Al) and fried food/dessert/cheese (for me). I loosened up the cheese prohibition at the end because, come on, what am I, Ghandi? But I’ve stayed away from the rest, except for a few bites of an incredible mint chocolate chip Magnum ice cream bar that Al bought after a particularly taxing hike we did on Saturday – but that’s another story. Anyway, we ended the Great Detox last Wednesday and the results have been really interesting.

teetotaler

On Wednesday, after four full weeks of not letting one single drop of booze pass our lips, we decided to open a bottle of 2010 Catherine Marshall Pinot Noir, a gift from our friend Ali. We paired our oh-so classy wine with salmon steaks, quinoa beet pilaf, and Super Troopers, which my husband had somehow never seen (!!??!!), a situation which obviously needed immediate remedying. As we drank the wine, we ooh-ed and aah-ed about how delicious it was and how we had missed drinking, and so on. “Oh, wine,” we cooed, stroking the bottle, “we missed you so much. We’ll never leave you again, we promise.” Okay, we didn’t actually say that out loud, but we thought it.

And then, the next morning, I woke up and felt awwwwful: hungover, sick, tired, the works. “Damn you, wine,” I snarled, glaring at the empty bottle through slitted eyes. “A curse upon your house!!!” Okay, I didn’t say that, either. And I realize that cursing a wine bottle’s house doesn’t make sense. But I was upset!

The next day was a holiday (“Human Rights Day”) and we attended a long-scheduled celebratory lunch with Al’s boss and colleagues to mark the end of a challenging project at work. Champagne was popped, and the waiter refilled everyone’s glasses several times. And, again, to my surprise, I felt like total crap after drinking. My energy was sapped, I was vaguely nauseated, and I regretted drinking any bubbly at all. This was sad for me, because I used to love a good day drink. But I was starting to realize that things might have changed for me.

Continuing my experiment, the next night, we went to dinner with a friend and then to Cirque du Soleil. I had two glasses of red wine and felt okay the next day. On Saturday night, we went to a comedy show and I had one glass of red wine, and I felt perfectly fine the next day. Are you starting to see a pattern here? Let me spell it out for you: when I drink less, I feel better.

This was a revelation.

Al and I concluded that our month of sobriety had essentially reset our livers, such that now we can tolerate much less booze than before — and this is probably a good thing. I don’t know why this never occurred to me before, but I think one to two glasses of wine for a night out is probably enough for me. Who’d’a thunk?? I guess li’l Stephanie is growing up.  Don’t get me wrong, Al and I will never be teetotalers – we love and appreciate wine too much – but I think from now on we’ll be consuming booze less frequently and in smaller amounts — and savoring it.

So, we’ll see what happens. But for now, in the spirit of appreciating alcohol, please enjoy this clip from Father Ted, our favorite priest-focused Irish comedy, about when Father Jack goes to AA by mistake.

DRINK!