Ahh…Napoli, i.e. Naples doesn't care what you think!


Naples is not the first place you think of going when you hit Italy, or the second, third, fourth, or maybe even fifth; hell, many people would see all of Northern Italy before hitting Italy’s red-headed step-child of a city (I mean this most affectionately). Well I’m here to tell you that if your 2-3 week trip in Italy does not include Naples, you have planned poorly or simply are not interested in seeing what Italy really has to offer. Napoli Architecture and 'art' - graffitiA complete opposite to the meticulously lined and polished landscape of Tuscany, Naples is in a mountainous, sort of sprawling strip of coastline in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, a couple hours train ride from Rome. Naples is a disappointment to see on the train/bus upon arrival, as the outskirts of the city are mostly factories and ugly high-rise buildings made of concrete.


When we got to Naples, a very nice man explained where we were to catch our bus back to home and was a bit shocked we were from the States, stating: “America! Why are you HERE, mamma mia!?” At this point Jess and I thought we were pretty much going to get mugged any minute and our short walk to the station did not change this perception as it looked a little like a demilitarized zone. We arrived at Garibaldi station and started our way to our hostel/hotel.

As we exited our metro (after getting a little lost due to the rather unintuitive and completely unsigned metro system) we entered Dante plaza, a large open space with a triumphant looking Dante and our first introduction to the old city. We walked down the Via Toledo and were immediately shocked: It was crazy; people everywhere, garbage, graffiti, countless shops, teeming and electric. We made it to our hostel, which like all the buildings was mid-collapse, and settled into out tiny room before embracing the streets. Our first destination: Pizza in the old city, as Naples is the birthplace of the glorious pizza (which by the way was considered filthy and disease causing by the upper crust [pun intended] Italy’s past as it was made in the poorest part of Naples).

Yes Please!We traveled through the old city to our first real pizza experience at Sorbillo, the only pizzeria in the world to have a Michelin star. After the 45 minute wait, a common wait time for tourist and Neapolitans alike, we entered the crowded dinning room and ordered. They have many pizzas, one beer, one or two kinds of wine, and are pretty short on patience. We got the margharita and one with toppings and the result: Better than any pizza you have tried anywhere unless it was at this place; I say this with 100% certainty. The crust was thin and chewy, sauce tangy but not overwhelming, and the mozzarella bufala creamy and delicious. It was one of the best eating experiences we have ever had. We ate at this place again a day later and would have waited as long as it took. Just a little bonus: The pizza was less than 4 Euros!

Food & Shopping

The next day we were on a mission to get Jess a jacket, and shopped our way through the crowded streets. Another thing Naples is known for is clothing; that sought after Italian fashion but 30% cheaper than elsewhere in Italy. Fashion in general in Naples was kinda funny; think Park Avenue meets Jersey Shore. Jess had no luck finding a jacket, but I certainly could have spent some money. Naples is a wonderland of mens fashion. Shop after shop of hand made suits, shirts, stylish pants and cheap jeans awaited any willing buyer. I’m so used to having to look in the tiny men's section of shops dominated by ladies clothing, that this was quite a treat.

That evening we had fried vegetables, another staple of Naples, and engaged in an awesome Naples experience: Public drinking. Every night tons of people gather in a small plaza surrounded by bars, restaurants and take-away shops to drink a cheap beer sitting next to 2600 year old Greek ruins. The plaza is disgusting. There is just no other way to put it. However, as you sit with 20-30-40 somethings drinking a beer in a small cloud of cigarette and marijuana smoke, Italians gesticulating wildly, laughing, and Armani clad socialites rubbing elbows with the cities homeless, you get an awesome view of humanity, and why this city is great.

Street Scene waiting for Pizza


The next day we went to Pompeii. Right off the train you will find one of the largest, most intact historical sites in the modern world. In the shadow of the once great Vesuvius is road after road of homes, shops, temples, and public squares, many of which still have detailed mosaics, intact ovens and tools of the times. Jess and I were there for 4-5 hours and maybe saw half of the site. It is really amazing. We also saw the famous “people” of Pompeii, once living citizens immediately cased in ash and frozen in time. Just the scale of the ruins justifies a trip for every history buff that comes to Italy. Jess is writing a more through piece on Pompeii, so look for that!

Day 2

That afternoon we walked around the old city to see some of the oldest shops and trades. One kind of bizarre trade was the making of very detailed wooden figures for nativity scenes, which is fine until you see a whole street of 40 shops bursting into the street with strange masks, figures, and whole little villages in wood. They were really amazing, but kinda creeped me out. We also explored some of the more questionable parts of town, which would have made for foolish nighttime wandering. Unfortunately, the Neapolitan mafia is still a very real deal here; past certain streets were until recently the scene for gang related shootings, hands-on crime, and forced pay-offs (which are still the case). Indeed upon arrival our hostel owner showed us where not to go on the map, "best not to cross this line at Via Duomo, over there is where a lot of shootings between the families happened a few years back." Wha?!

That evening we had pizza again (shocker…but common, what could we possibly get that’s better for 5$?!) and had another thing Naples knows best, espresso. Café Mexico is regarded by some as the best coffee in the world. It is very simple, strong, and quite worthy of the praise (although “best in the world” is questionable). Due to Italians setting national standards for the price of espresso at about a euro (it was getting too high due to taxation and Italians revolted) it certainly does not break the bank either.

Us in NapoliWe had to leave early the next day but really wanted to stay; Naples gritty charm had worked its magic on us. There is really no way to describe the city that is Naples, but I’ll give it my best: When I think of Naples I liken it to a once exquisite armchair, now torn and soiled through years of heavy use, that you cannot bring yourself to throw out because it is so comfortable. You know that you will not find another chair to replace it, so regardless of how it looks, it will never leave your living room.


Jess's additional thoughts:

I went to Naples to eat, and to eat pizza specifically. I'm happy to report, as Jon has, that we were not disappointed. Pizza plus the unending pastries, sweets, fried deliciousness, coffee and gelato at ever turn is a feast for the senses and stomach. Napoli isn't where you go to start a diet, but one shouldn't care. Eating here, and in all of Italy in fact, is such a pleasurable experience, one that deserves time and focus and I love obliging in every way.

Naples' rough edge but juxtaposing style made me really feel like I was in the old world. At the same time walking around at night, with shops open late and goods pouring out of small storefronts, including kitchy home items, plastic goods, electronics and of course cloths reminded me of similar night time scenes in Dakhla, Morocco and some other small towns. Somewhat old, somewhat second-world, urban but not all the way modern, Naples has a really special vibrancy to it.  Grit, grime and all, it's a place we completely loved.

People Live Here


It’s no secret that we’ve loved Italy. I’m continually amazed that people live here – in these ancient beautiful villages, with this art, this food. But it’s the people that have made it wonderful and knowing that in and of itself adds to the specialness of this place. Jon talked about this in his last post on Umbria, but I wanted to continue in that same vein a bit. It’s been about 5 weeks since we arrived, and we’ll be here until the end of October. 2 months in this dreamscape. 2 months living a typical Umbrian life, going to work in the morning, eating a hearty home-cooked lunch, enjoying the afternoon and then settling into a lovely meal in the evening. The weather has been incredible, with sun and pool time nearly every day while at the Casale. The days of rain invited impressive thunder and lightening storms, which added to the vibrant green colors in this green heart of Umbria in which we find ourselves.

There’s been a festival in some part of Umbria every day we’ve been here. Whether it’s music, art, wine, food, seasonal products and soon to be chocolate – there’s always something to celebrate it seems. Apparently during the summer it’s even more jovial, as each hamlet and village or collection of ancient homes has its own sagre or weeklong celebration of something central to that village.

All these towns are so charming and beautiful in their own unique way. Sure I guess if you aren’t into medieval architecture, don’t care about Renaissance art or culture, and aren’t into food or wine, Italy probably isn’t going to be interesting. But even that aside, the people have blown us away. They are so friendly. We were joking (perhaps rather insensitively) that Italians are kind and generous like Malians, they just have infrastructure (mostly) and generally a higher stander of living. We are continually amazed by our interactions with Italians. In the grocery stores and markets, or food stands, or at these tasting festivals we’ve been frequenting, there is no sense of impatience or annoyance that we don’t speak the language or don’t know what to ask for. Quite the opposite, there’s a joy and pride in sharing their products, their creations, and always a smile to accompany that sharing.

Take the Corciano Wine Festival (Corciano Castello di Vino) that we visited this weekend? 4€ bought us tastings to 13 wineries set up in the little medieval shop areas through this incredible hill town. Consider that each winery brings 2-5 wines to taste. Italians are so excited to share their wines that the pours aren’t these whimpy little ½ ounce pours you get in the States – we’re talking a ½ glass of wine – per taste. That plus the food stalls – fresh roasted chestnuts, unbelievable pecorino cheese, meats and so on – makes for a happy happy town (and blond American who finds herself there).

Earlier in the day we went to Corciano's neighbor, the town of Deruta, famous for Umbria handmade ceramics. It helps that Claudia (our host) is a ceramicist herself, and we were able to go to her favorite workshop, meet the owner and get an indepth tour of the molding, firing, glazing and painting of these incredible works of art. It didn't matter that no one bought anything (although we might go back for a momento) they were so happy to share their craft. It's something I'll really miss about Italy.

Watching Italians interact, especially around food, is also fun. Aside from the impressive amount of gesticulating, conversations draw on and there’s lots of banter and joking. It helps that the language itself has a beautiful flow to it, which sounds musical when people are going on about nothing in particular.

One of my favorite images was driving by our little local market that is owned by an older couple, and seeing the gentleman tending to his new olive tree. He had a sweet smile on his face. Perfetto.

Italy has so many problems in terms of its government, but the people still manage to create a beautiful life. It's inspiring and I'm so grateful to be here.

By the way, how could I forget! We harvested our hosts grapes last week! It's a small and young field so the yield was low and it took about 4 hours with 5 people. We loaded up the cars and took everything up to the 'cantina' mashed it all up and let the fermentation begin! It was super fun and we were tired by the end of the day. Not because it was particularly hard work, but just because it was so exciting!

Umbria baby!

So it has as usual been quite awhile since I posted…what can I tell you, I’m lazy.

Jess and I have been in Umbria for 3 weeks now and I can tell you, it is pretty cool. For one, it is old; I mean really old. Everything around you has the better part of 3-4 centuries on it and some of the towns are medieval, so they are all walled and narrow allies, tons of personality. The churches here are really amazing and so different from what we have seen elsewhere in Europe. They paint everything…it is crazy. The frescos up for six, seven, eight hundred years are still there! All the painting before the renaissance is all Jesus or Madonna based though, as the church funded all the art.

Costs here are pretty reasonable for a tourist, but maybe a little more expensive than in Spain and even a little more expensive than France at the grocer. Strangely, wine is a lot more expensive than in France or Spain (5 euros buys a decent drinkable bottle; still a hell of a lot cheaper than the US).  Food is about the same price as the US outside of specialties like truffles, parm, salami, etc. which are of course cheaper. Restaurants are about the same price as the US.

Jess and I have had the fortune to discover a new wine…Sagrantino. It is bold, tannic, dark and earthy…everything I love in wine. Even Jess who prefers a pinot loved it. We went to a wine fest in Montefalco and for 7 euros drank our asses off with the best there is! It was epic. This wine sells for 15-20 euros a bottle and is really a competitor for some fine cabs and bordeaux. The wine tasting was long, generous, and deeply satisfying…quite a thing to experience.

We also had a fantastic tasting courteously of our host in Montelpuciano (so you know, there are two: One which is the namesake of the town and is known for rather deep and complex reds, and another de abruzzo which is the more pale and easy-drinking red). Here we had the honor of trying a wine that Italy offers second to none, the Brunello, a blend mostly of sangiovese. This is truly superb; decent mouth feel with deep current and pepper, dry but not too astringent, the finish is clean, subtle, and leaves a lasting taste of Italy.

Some things to try in Umbria (and regionally in Italy) as it is the only place we have really experienced in Italy besides Rome: Truffle honey (wholly shit, it is good), wine (of course), porchetta (whole pig roasted with herbs, some shaved off including the crackling in a sandwich), pasta fresh and secca (dried), mortadella (the original “bologna” made of pork, pork fat and spices), and the list goes on and on. Italy is highly regional, so each area, town, etc is known for a dish, product, or method. It is hard to make bad food here.

Some negatives about Umbria: Italy is a bureaucratic nightmare. Everyone complains about taxes, which are harsh, and how poorly things run. There are a lot of mosquitoes. No joke, as I write this I just killed one on the screen of the computer. Italy is not currently sustainable…they import almost all their power and there is really not a plan for tomorrow. This place is beautiful, but it has its problems.

A few days ago Jess and I went to a food festival in Foligno, the one city we have been to that does not prominently sit on a hill. The fest was fun; it was a huge tent filled with regional goodies like dried sausage, truffle products, sweets, local beer, olives, etc. We got some great sausages that were lovely and full of flavor, tried some amazing parma ham, olives and truffle pastes.

We are waiting to harvest grapes at our hosts place, but the rain has come and we have to wait. This is one of the reasons we have come to Umbria, its accessible wine and culture. Just driving home from the food fest Jess and I stopped by a winery and the owner and his father had us sample from the barrel. Everyone we meet here is so nice and unassuming. We ended up with a nice little Sangiovese for 4 Euro and 5 liters of Umbrian Red for 8 Euros (yes, that’s 1.80 per liter!).

I would suggest anyone who is taking a trip to Italy to spend a few days in Umbria; it is not the well-manicured Tuscany, fancy Milan or reeking of history Rome, but it is beautiful and unassuming.

A Quick Trip to Rome


You may be wondering why these posts are always about a 'quick trip.' 2 days in Barcelona here, 2 days in Frankfurt there, 1 day in Nice, and now only 2 quick days in Rome. Why spend so little time in these magnificent places? I'm beginning to ask myself that too. But simply, at this stage in the game, it's a question of cost. Cities are expensive. Even budget accommodations, coupled with food and the biggest expenses for us - accommodations and attractions - make it difficult to be able to spend a lot of time in big cities. It's a shame really, because there's a lot to see in these places. But we've settled on the idea that these are small 'scouting trips,' for future visits. At least then I can convince myself that I'm coming back :) Regardless, Rome is an incredible city. I mean, for one, it's Rome. There's old stuff there; and that's an understatement. It may not be as old as Jerusalem, Athens or Cairo, but let's face it, Rome has an undeniable importance in the world's history.

This is our first trip to Italy and so everything is new and shiny (even if it's 2000 years old). Through a fluke in my understanding of Jon's arrival from Frankfurt, I arrived in Rome on the 31st, while Jon arrived on the 1st of September. No worries, I got a head start getting the layout of the city, trying gelato and taking a glimpse at the once-center of the western world.

Alone in Rome

I will admit, I was a little nervous to be a very blonde woman in the Italian capital. But I quickly realized that Rome is extremely safe. Also, given that Italian ladies are gorgeous I'm pretty sure no one is interested in hassling an obviously-unfashionable tourist who clearly isn't carrying much other than a water bottle and camera. So with confidence I easily managed to walk to a nearby restaurant in the Termini neighborhood and dig in on a 9euro 3-course meal. Pasta, the best chicken salad I've ever had and beautifully roasted eggplant were a perfect introduction to easy Italian food. I spent the rest of my first evening memorizing useful phrases (like, 'una coppette di gelato per favore' or 'a cup of gelato please') and creating our plan of attack for our 1.5 full days of sight-seeing. Plus, I had to find out where great pizza was located.

What to see in Rome when you have no time

The theme of this post is clearly that we had little time in Rome; as well as a small budget. Once we were happily reunited from our 10 days apart, we did the best free thing one can do in our situation. We walked everywhere. Jon and I walked to the Piazza della Republica down to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (which is enormous and incredibly impressive) through the Roman Forum down to the Colosseum and back to the Termini station where our hotel was located.

First impressions? Roman ruins are everywhere. Some of them don't even have signs. I felt that Rome must be much taller than it was in Roman times, given how deep the excavations are, and how much has been built upon since then. I also wondered if Rome has a building ordinance for height because nothing is taller than the Colosseum. No skyscrapers, no modern buildings. This is really interesting to me.

We of course stopped for a slice of pizza - which they price by the kilo - and gelato at the recommended Il Gelatone on Via dei Serptenti. Delicious. I satisfied one of my images of Italian cities of people sitting around a fountain in the center of a piazza, chatting, drinking wine and socializing. We partook in this and it was lovely. There are beautiful tiny churches everywhere and one of the joys of walking in Rome is stumbling upon them, going inside and seeing the frescos and art.

I cannot overstate the grandeur of Rome. It's different from that of Paris, which is hugely expansive with iconic monuments popping up everywhere. Rome is actually quite compact, walkable and accessible to the visitor. But you cannot help but feel steeped in history, with something to oggle at every turn of a corner. Indeed during our walk across town at night, we were dumbfounded by the constant thought of, "Oh, there's another Roman thing!"

Finally, I love eating in Italy. It's such a fantastic food culture and just the prospect of another meal is exciting. I did find a great pizza joint, and according to Let's Go Rome, this is one of the best in Rome - Pizzaria Baffetto. We pulled a Spain and arrived around 11:15pm, but we scored a small table right near the pizza counter and got to watch the magic happen. The pizza was fresh, delicious and overall a great neighborhood experience.

Vatican City

Having been to all these catholic churches all over Europe we couldn't see a reason to visit Rome and NOT see the Vatican. It is, of course, the smallest country in the world - so that naturally sealed the deal. But really, the Vatican is impressive. Plus, it's the Pope's house - and Pope Francis is hip, so we had to go visit his digs.

The freaky narrow stairway to the very tippy top of St Peter's Basilica and dome was not a stairway to heaven. It was hard - and freaky narrow. However, you can't beat the 360 degree view of Rome and the Vatican square below. I can't really convey the massiveness of St. Peter's - it's simply grand. Fit for a Pope as they would say.

We're not sure if we actually had to pay the 5 euro to get in or if we somehow got herded into the pay-line, because I'm sure there were people going into the basilica without paying. But, there aren't signs for anything here, so whatever.

Unfortunately, the time it took to wait in line to go up the non-stairway to heaven, the crowds at the Vatican Museum, and the new entry cost (12euro per person - apparently 3 years ago everything in Rome was free) meant that we were not able to see the Sistine Chapel. I'm super bummed about this. It's the Sistine Chapel for goodness sake! I'm resigning myself to one of those, "next time" moments.

Onward from Rome

After spending the morning at the Vatican - where you can actually send a postcard from the world's smallest country if you're willing to wait in a line that doesn't match the size of said country - we made our way back to central Rome and headed north to Umbria. We had agreed with our new hosts to be in the small town of Todi on the 2nd and had to battle the complicated, unsigned and erratic Umbrian regional train system.

We're here for the next 4 weeks. We're about 15 minutes from Todi, on a beautiful piece of property owned by Ev and Claudia an American/Italian couple who are building a wine and olive farm. It's a HelpX work exchange - we live here and work 4 hours/day in exchange for room and board. We'll be here for the wine harvest. The food is delicious, the company is great, the work satisfying and the scenery divine. All in all, between Rome and here, I feel incredibly grateful at this time.

Living in Norway - First Thoughts

We've been in living in Norway now for about 6 days now and thought I'd share our initial observations on this beautiful northern country. For those catching up, we're here until July 16th or so on a housesitting assignment. It's an arrangement where we stay for free in someone's home while they're on holiday and take care of the house and pets. We're caring for 2 cats, Rimi and Poesje (pronounced pozya), and Bryan, a german sheep/terrier mix. Sweet animals! It's working out pretty well so far! Scenery

Flying over Norway

I don't know about you, but when I think of Norway, I think of incredible natural landscape, like fjords. Well, to be honest, we haven't seen that side of Norway...yet. We did see a little fjord flying in; but the south end of the country isn't where the spectacular-post-card-worthy views are. Our housesit is basically smack dab in the center of the country in a river valley 25km north of Lillehammer. It's beautifully green, foresty and lush. Honestly, my first impression of Norway was, "it looks like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan." Rocky inlets, super green land, lakes dotting the landscape - just like Michigan.

We'd like to take a little road trip at the end of our stay with a nice gentleman with whom we couchsurfed our first night here that would take us to the west coast, past some of the famous and outstanding fjords and mountains. Cross your fingers for that. In the meantime, we've been enjoying living in a quaint rural home with spectacular views of the valley below. The 6 hectares (or about 14 acres) of land on which our homeowners live is both field and forest and completely isolated. There is literally not another home within direct view of our house. It's a new feeling to not have to close shades and worry about privacy. The driveway gate is a good 1/2 - 3/4 miles from the house. I like it.

View from the deck


I have no knowledge whatsoever of Norwegian. None. Ok, well now I know how to say thank you (Takk!) but other than that, it's completely foreign. This makes reading signs and trying to pronounce things really fun. Like this word: Havrekli oppskrifter. Say that. It meas "oatbran recipe". Or the word: hovmeister. It means, "butler." One phrase we do really enjoy is something along the line of: Vash de go, which means, "here you go" as in, here, eat this, bon appetit. There are a lot of similar sounding words which does make it easier. It's very fun though.

Money & Economics

It's no secret that Norway is expensive. Having been in Mali, Senegal and Morocco I'm used to experiencing what an underdeveloped country is like. In the UK we got used to being somewhere that had a stronger currency and was therefore more expensive. However, I have never been in what I would consider an overdeveloped country. Everything is at least 30% more expensive here than on the mainland of Europe. For every US dollar we spend, we go through 6 NOK (Norwegian Kroner). To give you an idea, the 1.5L bottle of Coca-Cola we bought today to go with our duty free rum was 29 NOK, just under $5. Petrol, or regular gas for the car, was 15.3 NOK per litre, that would be 56.61 NOK per gallon (roughly) or $9.4/gallon! I will never again complain about things being expensive in the US!

But why is it like this? My question was, if prices keep rising, and everyone complains about the cost of living, why are costs rising? Can't it be controlled? I still don't have an answer, but did read this interesting Reuters Article on Norway that gave a good overview of the situation. There's also this one, which explains that Norway is the second largest producer of oil in the world after Saudia Arabia (didn't know that!!). In short, this is a super rich country. High taxes equal strong social services, but also a high cost of living. Everything is pristine and efficient.  Ironic that the power in the entire valley went out our first day here; and since there's no natural gas lines in the country, everything is run on electricity. Everything.

Groceries & Living

Expensive living to us means lots of homey time doing homey things. Baking, cooking, walking the dog, etc. And since we have nothing but time and the sun never goes down our extra long days make for a perfect lifestyle of productivity, relaxation, nature-loving hikes and eating. No wonder the quality of life here is so good! We're making all our bread, cooking tons and we even bought a whole salmon which Jon impressively gutted, fileted and cut up - without the benefit of having a filet knife! Tomorrow = bread baking plus the great salmon cook-off as we prepare our 9-10 portions of beautiful salmon.

The grocery store was a fun experience, despite everything being 3-4 times more expensive than in the states. That salmon was by far the best deal of all - 117 NOK for 3 kilos! That's $20 for a whole 26" salmon! However, if you want to buy 250g of ground beef (about 8oz) you'll pay $6. Iceberg lettuce (isbergsalat) was $2.25 while a 1/2 gallon of milk (lett), and not fancy organic special milk, was $4. We were price hunting too and finding the cheapest products that also looked good.

We did treat ourselves though, because why travel if you're not going to branch out and try new things?? So our splurges included local sweet cheese (geitost ekte) and reindeer sausage (spekepolse reinsdy). Mmm I'm looking forward to it!

It seems like the good deals at the grocery stores include yarn (there's a very large yarn section), hot dogs (called grillposer- don't know why, but they're a good deal), and frozen fish (salmon is orret rund).

Anyway I know I've talked about the cost of things here, but that's the way it is. And it's not just us, everyone we've met is focused on money and the cost of living - and also of course living a good life. Makes me really appreciate our daily sauna time. Yay.

Don't forget you can see all our pics on our Seeking Fireflies Flickr page!

When you rule the world...shouldn't you get their food?


It has been awhile since I wrote a food post and after a month in England, I think it is about time. There are those who would have you believe that English food sucks, and they're kinda right to a point; but the ever growing number of Michelin stars points in the other direction. However, I can't afford to eat in a Michelin starred restaurant!!! With the pound at $1.53 and our budget travels in full effect, even lunch would be extravagant. I would also point out that the great majority of English people can't afford to eat there either. So what does that leave us with: Normal food for normal folks, and thats what I'm gonna talk about.

There is a way that most English food comes: Fried, to within and inch of its life, or in a pastry crust. The one exception is cheap curry (a left over from Indian occupation and a welcome addition to British cuisine). Fish and chips, pasties, pies, etc. are everywhere and relatively cheap.

Their are a couple of classics that are worth a note:

Pasty - A pastry sort of pie (think small flaky calzone) with traditional fillings such as steak and ale, lamb and mint, and the Cornish pasty which is like beef stew in in pastry. Cheap.

Pies (hopefully pork :) -  These are free standing little pies filled with similar things as in pasties with the exception of the pork pie. One of my favorite British snack foods, the pork pie is a lump of minced and spiced pork with a substantial layer of gelatin in a pie crust. It is meant to be eaten slightly chilled, but this may make the gelatin layer a little off-putting for some. Jess found them to be intensely "meaty". Cheap.

Black pudding - This is a blood sausage that is cut into a little disk and usually fried. It is part of the traditional Scotish and Irish breakfast. It is quite solid and has a lightly spiced taste and is mostly oats or some sort of grain with small bits of meat and blood. There is really no way to make it sound appetizing but I assure you that a lightly fried egg on top of black pudding is an amazing way to start the day! Cheap.

Little places that do what I like - There is a picture of a whole pig in which Jess and I partook in Edinburgh. It just goes to show that there are little places who take their stuff seriously and offer great food at reasonable prices. I had a good sized sandwich stuffed with tender pork and a piece of the cracklin, topped with BBQ and haggis (spreadable kind of the Scottish classic) for under 4 pounds. A great find. Thanks Jess!

In general, a lot of food is consumed in pubs in small towns and villages (before 8:30!!!, good luck getting food after 9 PM any night in the UK, unless is is donar or a similar fast food). Larger cities of course have various restaurants and there is a large difference in price and quality. You can usually find an okay meal in a pub, like a pie and mash or burger, for about 8-10 pounds. Good food cost a lot of money and is comparable to US prices except that it is in pounds!

Now, on to beer, another English staple. The beer here is generously poured (20 oz pints), a fair price (about 3 pounds per beer), and really rather uninspiring. There is a craze to have "real ales" which are basically English made beers that are pulled from the barrel without carbonation. Some are okay, but I really believe that this beer is meant to be consumed in volume. From someone that is used to an ESB type of beer, and that is mostly what is availible to them, this will seem quite nice; but I'm from Portland and we like our beers to be aggressive, strong (UK beer is between 3-4.5% alcohol by volume; Bud is over 5% to give an example; most NW beers are well over 5%), and packed with flavor which is about as far away from British beer as you can get. Imported beer is available on tap (called a lager) and is usually at least 25-50% more expensive.

A real surprise is that there are a number of very impressive ciders about in England that are exactly the opposite of their beer. Note, I'm not talking about Strongbow, which is basically fortified apple juice and not very good; I'm talk'in scrumpy! Scrumpy is quite flavorful (although it can have an unpleasant bitter taste for some), sits at about 7% abv, and cost as much as the beer. A 50 CL bottle will set you back about 2 pounds in a store and a pint (20 oz) will cost maybe 3 pounds and lay you out on the floor.  4-5 pints equals a kick to the head the next day, so indulge at your own risk.

Wine is expensive and not good here. Granted, we just came from France, but even English people know their wine sucks and import it. Unfortunately, it seems importing wine to the UK makes it about 4x more expensive than in France and with half the quality.

What about spirits you might ask? Well, this is a mixed bag. You know there is something north of England called Scotland and they make a little drink up there, maybe you heard of it. In all seriousness, Scotch is an amazing spirit and really unique in the world of liquor. Too bad it is so damned expensive (I believe more expensive here than in the US much of the time). So here is the rub:

Bartender: Would you like a scotch?

Me: Why yes I would love one.

Bartender: Okay, just let me grab the metal 35 ml (about a child's finger at the bottom of the glass) pour device required by the UK government and i'll charge you 3 pounds. Enjoy!

This sucks. Charge me what you want, but good lord, pour me a proper drink!  Here is another thing: I'm in Scotland, but it is discouraged for bars to arrange tastings and you are expected to just buy a full pour. I know just enough about scotch that I can be expensive in a bar doing something like this. If you have the means, it is apparent to me that distillery tours are the way to go.

Well, there is a whole world of food and drink up here that I did not touch on, but you will have to read about it elsewhere as I have been rambling on for some time and we try to keep these things manageable. I look forward to siting down to a lovely NW pint and telling you all about it!

Touring England - Off the Beaten Path


At long last our blog is fixed and we can resume sharing stories from our travels with you. First up - touring England - off the beaten path and in places you probably wouldn't normally go to, but are brilliant (as they say). Our time in England has been driven by 2 things - where our friends live that can host us, and when they're available for a visit. To be honest, I didn't do any research about England or what we should see and do. I've personally decided to approach this leg of our journey with a hearty go-with-the-flow attitude.

Southend & Kent

We spent our first few days in England in Southend-on-Sea with a former co-worker of Jon's, Jim, and his partner Kieron. Kieron and Jim were fabulous hosts and not only introduced us to Southend, its pubs and the wonders of Tesco (England's super large and cheap grocery store - for which we have so much love), they took us on an amazing day out and about in the County Kent. We visited stately homes, a castle, old medieval cities, had an incredible afternoon tea in a garden and experienced a true countryside pub.

We spent time playing board games, cooking and baking (so nice to bake after being on the road!) and I fell in love with what I now believe to be the best television show (despite it being for kids) - Horrible Histories. We had such a wonderful time relaxing in a town we certainly would not have gone to.

Peterborough, Nottingham, Cambridge & March

Our next visit was to a university friend of Jon's, Dan, who lives just outside of Peterborough in the small village of March. The land is much more flat north of London, with green farmland stretching for miles. It's lush and beautiful.

Our first full day took us to the famous city of Nottingham - yes I thought the same thing at first as well - Robin Hood! We decided to go on a little Robin Hood adventure - the snapshots of which you can view on our new YouTube channel (where we'll feature our new vlog - hooray!).  Nottingham is much bigger than I would have imagined. I must have still had an image in my head of little village below a castle. Not so. What is amazing is that there are hundreds of caves carved out of the sandstone beneath Nottingham. We ventured into 8 or so of them and got to see the oldest (and therefore most significant) underground tannery in the UK. Hard to believe it's underneath a shopping center.

Our Robin Hood finding mission took us to Nottingham Castle - only to find out that there's no castle left. Boo hoo. But it was a great view of the city - and again, probably not somewhere we would have gone! Walking down Maid Marian Way was kinda funny.

We also took a day trip to Cambridge, home of the famous university. Cambridge is stunning - I can't believe people go to school there! We enjoyed another day of incredible weather walking the old city and musing at the people punting on the river (pushing boats through the canal - it looks silly when you can't see their legs).

Our final venture in the area was a night out on the town...of March. March is actually interesting, in that it used to be an island surrounded by marshes, and has evidence of Roman settlements (thank you wikipedia). What we discovered also is that it is home to 3 fabulous pubs, all of which have character. I'd never heard of March, but in the spirit of going to places you'd never go - this was a really fun and interesting stop along the way. Thanks for the fabulous stay Dan!

On to Welwyn Garden City

Next stop was to see friend of mine, Esther, whom I haven't seen since 1997. Esther welcomed us into her lovely flat in Welwyn Garden City just outside of London. Another unexpected gem, old Welwyn is one of the more charming villages we've seen, complete with old tudor buildings, a tiny canal and flowers covering old stone houses.

Being so close to London, we couldn't resist spending a day in the city. With 6 hours in London, we managed to visit 2 incredible museums - the British Museum of Antiquities and the Tate Modern Museum of Art. The British Museum was absolutely amazing. We'd been to the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo - but wow, the British Museum has an incredible Egypt collection. Plus - we got to see the actual Rosetta Stone. Not bad. I've also been continuing my Harry Potter kick by seeing Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross among other sites. Yeah, I'm dork.

Up to York

Moving on from Welwyn (thanks Esther for an incredible visit!) we stopped over in York for a night. What an amazing city! Complete with a walled old center, incredible cathedral and apparently lots of ghosts as it's touted as the most haunted city in England, this was a good stopover. We even made a second video about what to do in York with 16 hours or less.

Newcastle, Durham & Hadrian's Wall

After York we continued our journey north to stay with another wonderful college friend of Jon's, Rob, just outside of Newcastle. We're just a few days here so far, but we've already seen the beautiful old city of Durham (whilst enjoying a free music festival in which Rob played - well done!) and made a day trip to see Hadrian's Wall. Built in 127 AD it was the official border between what is now England and Scotland (they didn't exist back then). It crosses the entire width of England at this point - 70 miles. We were jealous of the people hiking along the wall.

The landscape is different that far north - rolling hills, but less trees. More exposed rock and more topography. I hope we get to see Scotland, and some of the coastline. This is how I imagine it.

After I reflect on this it really makes me realize - by golly we've seen a lot in 2 short weeks in England! I can't have even imagined venturing through these little towns, villages and sights, especially having done no preparation for it. But it's been really charming and wonderful to spend time with friends and get to know the area. Can't wait for more!

Return to America (for now)

After a fabulous 2 days in Lyon, France, and a very short but stunning few hours in Paris, we're hopping the pond and heading stateside tomorrow to relax, recuperate and celebrate my brother's marriage in Jacksonville, Florida. It's almost strange to be going to America at this time. Aside from the fact that I cannot wait to see my family, there's a part of me that thinks, "oh, it's over? We're going back to our country?" But then I have to remember, that in all the little legs of this trip, this big leg #1 is coming to a close and a new chapter of our adventure is beginning. Being in France seems normal at this point - we have been in the country for 7 weeks now. For me speaking French comes easily, and Jon's comprehension is really picking up to where he can follow conversations. There are things every day that surprise us and help us remember that we're traveling and living abroad, and those moments continue to make every day special.

I also have to remember that our ticket is a round trip flight, and 2 weeks will pass very quickly. Before we know it we'll be back in Paris and another part of our experiment will begin. I for one, am really looking forward to being in a familiar place, with people that I know care about me and with whom I don't have to second guess or worry a decision will drastically impact the next set of events. We've come to learn just how stressful (all the while amazing) continuous travel can be. Both Jon and I commented that if we weren't going to Florida at this point, we'd need to find an apartment somewhere for a good long while just to stop moving. Not only is it expensive, but it's just exhausting. While I miss my friends, community, definitely family, and sometimes work, I still wouldn't trade being here. There's so much more to do and see, and so many unexpecteds to cross our path. I can't wait for the next chapter.

Some Stats

Since December 28 (our departure date) here are some fun facts from our travels:

  • Visited 29 cities, villages and towns
  • Traversed approximately 39 degrees of latitude and around 118 degrees of longitude
  • Used boats, trains, buses, cars, taxis, airplanes, shared taxis, metros, our feet, bikes and hitchhiked to get to where we wanted to go
  • Stayed in 7 people's private homes thanks to their generosity
  • Attempted to entertain approximately 308, 8-14 year old French children over the course of 6 weeks
  • Colored, drew and/or laminated well over 200 handmade posters (and trust me, the mention of designing something on a computer and printing it results in a very disappointed look from your boss - tried it)
  • My favorite stat for which I truly have no idea - the number of bottles of wine consumed that cost less than 3euro each - enough to be proud - budget traveling baby.

Lyon/Paris Recap

Before I get too far into thinking about the future - because let's face it, Jon and I make travel decisions on the fly - I do want to tell you just how awesome Lyon is. It's really awesome.

But seriously, Lyon for me is to Paris as Chicago is to New York - the more laid back, user friendly, unintimidating 2nd largest city with arguably better food, definitely nicer people and attractions that will still boggle your senses.  We rented a little 1-bedroom flat through airbnb (if you don't know it, try it it's fantastic) from a lovely French woman who happens to have traveled a bunch in West Africa and Morocco and is really into the arts. We rented her entire apartment (she goes and stays with a friend while she has guests) for at least 20 euro less than the cost of a hotel. BUT we got a kitchen, private bathroom, washer and endless internet. We also got to spend time in a neighborhood we would never have seen, which happened to be the Asian/North Africa/Turkish neighborhood. YES! Pho for lunch, kabab for dinner, and endless options for grocery shopping in the Asian food markets and Middle Eastern pastry shops. It was also a 10 minute walk from the very heart of Lyon. It was almost too good to be true - must have been the 5 flights of stairs we had to climb to get there that offset the perfectness.

Another bonus was that we got to spend the day with our counselor friend Krista, who was passing through on her way from our mutual last work site to Barcelona. Together we spent the day walking Lyon, searching for traboules (tunnels that connect buildings in old Lyon), and climbing the mountain to see the incredible castle-like church that overlooks the city.

If you do anything in Lyon, I recommend traboule hunting. Some of them are marked, and as we learned from a nice bookstore owner, you just have to press the bottom button the call pad to open the doors. Naturally, since the majority of them are not marked, this led us to probably prank call about a half-dozen or so homeowners on their callpads, before realizing these were just private residences with no cool tunnels running under their apartments. Oh well. Sorry people.

Anyway, our stay in Lyon, as usual was too short, and so here we are, with less than 12 more hours in the grand city of Paris before we board the plane and head to Florida. Still recovering and exhausted from camp, we walked through the Louvre courtyard and the Jardin des Tuileries. Crossing the bridge near Musée d'Orsay and meandering down Rue St. Germain was about all we had in us. It's my 5th time in this fabulous city, and Jon's first. If we weren't arriving back here in 2 weeks, I think we would have made a more concerted effort, but since (incha'allah) we are coming back, we're contented to enjoy our little neighborhood (thanks to a free hotel night on American Village! woohoo!) and lay low. Paris Party 2013 begins on May 23 - stay tuned.

So, off to the States tomorrow, check ya'll stateside!

Reflections from Camp

It's our last week at American Village, and with approximately 5 long days left on our contract, I find myself attempting to reflect on the last 5 weeks of craziness that has become my life and sort it all out. It's been a fascinating, frustrating, at times funny, and at most times frantic experience (Jon wants me to insert f^&*cked in to my 'f' adjective list...). So here are some thoughts on where we've been and perhaps what's next. "Being" in France

Yes, it's true, the phrase, "I'm working in France" sounds sooo romantic and exciting and wonderful all at the same time. We've also been pretty good I'd say at sharing some enticing photos from where we've been. But it's time for us to come clean. In the last 5.5 weeks, we've had 4 days off, with the addition of a 3 day break when we moved work locations. ALL of the adventuring, eating and yes, drinking, we've been boasting about has happened on those short days. That should tell you that we do a lot of the following things when we're not at camp:

  • Eat
  • Drink
  • Walk (usually 5-10 miles in a day)
  • Think about eating and drinking
  • Think about and subsequently search for patisseries and chocolatiers (that's usually JStern-driven)
  • Walk
  • Get ourselves to and from our work site.
  • Oh yeah, we usually spend a lot of time griping about camp...

I will say that in our short and few days off in the last month or so, the best part about where we've been in France is that we would NEVER come to these small towns and villages. Most likely we would pass through Vienne on the way to somewhere else, and we certainly would not have stopped in Marmande or even remotely thought about going to Eymet - which was truly a highlight. We would probably not have quite the exposure to the different regional flavors and wines as we are having, and we certainly wouldn't be seeing so much rural farmland. So although the time we're spending experiencing France as opposed to working in the bizarre little microcosm that is American Village is short, those days off have been really great.

Cultural Lessons from Camp

The fascinating 'f' adjective in my introduction stems from the fact that being around French adolescents for 5+ weeks really has been quite interesting. It's a great way to experience French culture and see how different (and sometimes similar) French kids are from American kids. For me, although I am not permitted to speak French with the kids (full on English immersion) it's been an excellent way to improve my comprehension of the language, as well as learn vocab and take in colloquialisms. I also realized today that it really wasn't my fault I can't understand anyone here back at Vienne, their accent is so much thicker than the folks that live near Bordeaux. It's as though they really do have marbles in their mouths! Some observations about the kids are:

  • Although incredibly competitive - much more than American kids - French children will support and encourage their peers in such uplifting ways.
  • French kids are pretty whiny
  • As a result of an education system that teaches by repetition rather than problem solving and critical thinking - French kids have a really hard time with creative projects and open ended questions for which they have no model. (Insert a plug for the need for quality arts education HERE!)
  • As language learners, they say incredibly funny things. For example, we had a super cute kid last week try and ask to pass the bread at the table, but what came out was (think of a strong french accent here), "can uhh you uhhhh shit bread?" What?!? Awesome. Of course he wasn't saying 'shit' but whatever he was trying to say certainly sounded like it.

Life After Camp

At the end of our American Village experience what will we do? SLEEP. I will also be certain to never work a job that pays less than $3/hour and requires me to work 6 days per week for over 15 hours per day. It's just dumb.

We're thinking of heading back to the South of France, but it's super expensive so we're looking at other options to spend time here until May 10. On said date, we're flying all the way to Jacksonville, Florida for the fabulous celebration of my brother's (heeeyy Jeremy) wedding. Let me tell you, we have NEVER been more thrilled to go to Florida. 3 months of various illness, exhaustion, ups, downs, stress from this crazy job and so on, makes us happy to spend a relaxing 2 weeks soaking in the sun and doing nothing but celebrating. Don't get me wrong, travel is AWESOME, and I feel blessed and so fortunate to have been able to make the decision to take my life in this direction. Wouldn't change a thing. A little break will be nice, that's all.

Signing off for now - have you ever needed a break from something really super awesome?

Flavor of the day…PORK!

Jon sampling rosé from different regions in France It has been a while since I wrote a strictly food blog so I thought I would get something down. As the title of this post would lead you to believe, France is a pork kinda place. Pork is second only to the ever delicious Fois Gras in my esteem. Besides all of the various cuts and preparations of the lovely meat that Jess and I have sampled, there are an ever-increasing number of sausages, pates, and hams to be had in France. Of them all, France has definitely nailed the pate. It is as easy as walking into the nearest store where a pate can be bought for an extremely reasonable price, like $20 a kilo (one portion might cost $1-2 and be the only protein necessary for a well planned lunch).

Unfortunately, while good, the ham leaves a bit to be desired. I am confident that Italy and Spain will rule in that domain. Additionally, cured meats also fall a little flat when one considers the great gastronomical tradition in France.  I have found much better cured meats in Portland than in France thus far, but have sampled some very promising meats…we shall see.

Strangely, before the blessed BBQ rib incident (a big thanks to Josh Bishop for his awesome ribs and major role in my pork awakening) in my late 20’s, I hated pork

; so, lets move on to cheese.

The cheese is pretty awesome and again soooo much cheaper than in the States. While more mild in general, I have had some lovely cheese here for less than a euro for a generous portion. We have yet to do a sampling of chesses as we have mostly been buying for a picnic.

Picnics in general are a hell of a lot easier to prepare, buy, and consume in France: You can get good cheese, ham, pate (fois gras or pork) or cured meat, local veggies and fruit, and a lovely baguette for super cheap; add a decent bottle of wine for 3-4 Euro and you have an awesome picnic you can take anywhere. Picnics have thus far been the most impressive eating I have done in France. The most amazing thing is that we are not shopping in specialty stores, or even in particularly nice stores; these are just little markets in town. It is like every little shop in France is a mini New Seasons. You don’t even need to ask if it is local, because everything is local and fresh unless it is obviously not (bananas and such).

In the Cour et Buis farmer's co-op - so many yummy local frenchy things!

Jess and I were pretty excited to be invited to a little village this coming Sat to have a picnic with the locals in front of the town cave (wine seller). It will likely prove to be delicious and extremely pleasant.  Apparently the town does this every Sat in season and a significant part of the population is Brits, Americans and other English speakers, which is nice for me. We are likely in for some great wine, good food, and a lot of laughs. Wish you were here!

Well, that’s all for now…I’ll keep eating and drinking till I find something new to discuss.