Chronicles of a writer abroad


Vienna Part I: What we ate

I have a special fondness for Austria. Perhaps that’s because it was the first European country Stelian and I visited, back in 2006. But it also has a lot going for it — nice people, gorgeous Alpine scenery, spoken German that is clear and resembles that in my lesson books (this last being something I really appreciate since living in Switzerland).

And let’s not forget the amazing food. During our recent three-night stay in the nation’s capital, we didn’t eat anything that disappointed us, which is rare, since we tend to have hit-and-miss experiences as we try out new places on trips. So let’s kick off the Vienna series with a recap of some of our delicious meals and snacks, shall we?

For the evening of our first full day, I made a dinner reservation at Figlmueller, based on the advice of our guidebook. When we arrived at the appointed time, we saw a long line running out the door and onto the street, which is always a good sign. The restaurant’s menu is built around its famous pork schnitzel (need I remind you that Wiener Schnitzel originates in Wien, the German name for Vienna?). In Figlmueller’s version, 250 grams of meat is pounded flat and then breaded and fried into an enormous schnitzel:

Stelian's dinner - a ginormous, plate-overlapping schnitzel with a side of potato salad. He would like you to know that he exercised restraint and did not finish it.

I had the chicken version, which was a little more reasonably-sized, but also incredibly delicious.

The restaurant only carries Austrian drinks, so this was the perfect opportunity for us to try an Almdudler.

This is Austria’s national soft drink (like Rivella is Switzerland’s). We both enjoyed it — it is a carbonated, herbed lemonade that tastes something like Ginger Ale.

The next day, we had lunch at Trzesniewski — another Vienna institution, one that gets very crowded at midday. The deal here is that they offer a couple dozen varieties of small, open-faced sandwich (the red one below shows the full size) and you pick and choose the ones you want. Most are based on eggs, mayo, and relish. The partially-eaten plate below includes relish-tomato (red), egg-and-relish (green and yellow), egg-and mushroom (grey and yellow), and cream-cheese-horseradish-carrot (white and orange). Not pictured is Stelian’s favourite, liver paste, which he ate three of. All of the sandwiches were delicious, and a fun way to try a variety of different Austrian flavours.

On our final night, we tried Tafelspitz, or boiled beef, which is one of the most famous Austrian dishes. For this we went to Plachutta, again on the advice of the guidebook, and we were again very happy with the choice. Here is the set-up:

In Tafelspitz, beef is boiled in broth with root vegetables. We were given the choice of noodles or strips of pancake (and chose the former, the latter striking us as too bizarre) and the broth was ladled onto these for the first course (see Stelian’s bowl above). After the soup, our waiter fished out the beef and plated it alongside the excellent creamed spinach and roasted potatoes. The beef tastes rather like pot roast (a comparison I would not have been able to make before I learned to cook it a few months ago), and is meant to be eaten with the apple and cream-chive sauces on the far left of the picture. I would label this a must-do in Vienna, and it will certainly be a do-over if we go back!

And so, that’s it…no, don’t despair, I’m kidding. I would never forget to talk about dessert. I would, however, forget to take pictures of it, since I usually devour it within seconds of it being placed in front of me (hey, it’s all a part of marathon recovery). I did manage to snap a picture of this slice of Sacher Torte when we were halfway into it, though:

We ate this at Demel, one of Vienna’s most famed coffeehouses — we might have gone to the Sacher Hotel, where the cake originated, but Demel is also celebrated for its cake. This was our second time trying Sacher Torte, Austria’s beloved chocolate-cake-with-apricot-jam-under-the-icing confection: we also sampled it in 2006. Both of our experiences with it have been somewhat anticlimactic — it’s nicely flavoured, but is also a fairly dry cake. It’s still very good, just not the blow-your-mind good that you might expect based on all the hyperbole and history surrounding it.

Other dessert highlights on our trip included an unbelievably good apfelstrudel drowning in vanilla sauce, a delicious almond/Amaretto cake, and an ice-cream dessert with apricot puree at the centre (the Viennese are very fond of  Marille, or apricot, in desserts).

I’ll get my pictures organized and be back soon with a link to an album and more tales of Austrian adventure!



Before, during & after

I want to share the experience of  the completed marathon with you. Given my tendency to be too verbose, however, I thought it best to break this down into three lists which together encapsulate my experience on Sunday.

Before the race

  1. Wake up before dawn, thinking why the heck did I want to do this again?
  2. Feel doubt that my training has been enough. Engage in negative self-talk, reminding myself that I was never an athlete in high school or college.
  3. Try to remind myself of the more than 650km that have been accumulated in these months of training. Try to tell myself that I’ve done it before.
  4. Continue to feel niggling doubt.
  5. Make it to the site and see fit runners “warming up,” which they do by running faster than I do at top speed, with a casual expression showing that they’re hardly exerting themselves. Tell myself again that I do not belong.
  6. Resolve, even before the race begins, that I’m never doing this again.

During the race

  1. Before 2km: become sorted with my people — the ones who go about the same speed as I do, and who have the same kind of somewhat-but-not-very-fit physique. Start to relax.
  2. 2km: Begin to be assailed by hard rain and wind. Start to worry.
  3. 10km: 10km runners mixed among us finish their race with exclamations of “ugh, that was horrible!” (referring to the bad weather). Try not to think about the 32.2 km I still have to run in said weather.
  4. 15km: hands freeze. Shoes squelch. Head down, I concentrate on the shimmering, almost mirror-like reflections the runners ahead of me cast on the wet pavement.
  5. 25km: Turnaround point. Rain has stopped; sun comes out; endorphins kick in fully. These alter my perception of time and allow me to drift mentally.
  6. 30-40km: Notice that legs are getting quite sore. Drift. Look at the lake. Drift. Watch the funny choreography of runners trying to drink while running, then trying to lob empty bottles into roadside repositories. Drift. Share a smile with the person I’ve been running beside for a while as we cross a timing mat together. Drift. Notice that legs are getting ever sorer. Drift.
  7. 40-42km: No longer drifting, but having to concentrate on not stopping.
  8. 42 km: See Stelian, give him a high-five. Keep going. Watch two kids belonging to a woman running just in front of me jump over the barrier and take their mother’s hands to run the last 200 meters with her. Feel the total euphoria of the finish line.

After the race

  1. Feel bewildered as someone takes off my timing chip, someone else puts a medal around my neck, other people offer fruit, drinks, food.
  2.  Think how awesome the experience was, and immediately revise I’m never doing this again to I’m doing this again for sure!
  3. Wonder how come I can’t walk at all.
  4. Begin to experience the trinity of sore, stiff muscles, nagging unspecific hunger, and general fatigue.
  5. Revise I’m doing this again for sure! to Maybe…we’ll see.
  6. Wonder why all those hours are condensed into just a few memories.
  7. Ask myself if I really did it after all.
  8. Review the evidence.

Race medal, showing the course along the Zurichsee to Meilen and back.

The coveted (and cat-approved) finisher shirt.

Bonus: There is a video of me (in white hat) running to the finish behind the woman with her kids here.


Running from superstition

Soooo…ever since last week, when I waxed poetic (literally, and unfortunately) about the beauty of our spring weather, guess what’s been happening? It’s been raining or otherwise badly-weathered, pretty much constantly. The four-day Easter weekend passed in a blur of grey skies and raindrops; on Sunday it even snowed. As I sit here typing this evening, it’s raining and 7 degrees…this afternoon I went for a run in my winter gear and came back rain-stippled and shivering. In short, it’s a far cry from the sunny, warm days of a week or two ago.

It’s funny how the human tendency to superstition arises in such situations. A mental scoundrel, whom I will refer to here as Egocentric-Pattern-Detecting-Centre-of-My-Brain (EPD-COMB, for short) whispers, Look, you went and jinxed the weather! Yes, little old me, controlling the entire region’s weather pattern…But in all seriousness, superstition is a hard thing to get away from; our brains seem sometimes to be wired for it, and it’s evident in all kinds of human behaviour. It’s the reason, for example, that I haven’t yet announced to you that I’m planning to run the Zürich marathon in 10 days. Yes, on April 22nd, which happens, by coincidence, to be the date of my 30th birthday (EPD-COMB: See, the world is revolving around you again!), I will run 42.2 kilometers for the second time in my life.

Cool way to celebrate a birthday? I think so, but some of you might disagree. The thing is, I’m used to spending my birthdays outside, and this is because I’m born on Earth Day, which has existed since 1970, or about 12 years before I came along. In elementary school, it was always a day where we were  loosed from the classroom and allowed to do something outdoors, to connect us with Mother Nature (Younger EPD-COMB, in childlike voice: it’s because you’re special!). I remember, in fact, that one year we released helium balloons with little personalized note cards on them, requesting that if anyone found the balloon, they would send the card back to us. I can’t remember why we released the balloons — as a lesson about pollution? To see how far they would travel? But we released them on my birthday, and what do you know? Some weeks later, my balloon-card comes back in the mail. The man who found the balloon, elsewhere in Toronto (my memory might be embellishing here, but I believe it floated onto his balcony) wrote on the card, “This was special because the balloon arrived on my birthday.” True story, and my mom might still have the proof tucked away in a box somewhere. (EPD-COMB: You and him! You’re the chosen ones! The balloons have honoured your specialness!)

But back to the marathon. You know how I tried to run it last year…tried with a great amount of pain and frustration, not realizing at the time that it’s very difficult to train for a marathon while one’s body contains what my doctor described as “the smallest amount of iron possible.” Now, thanks to pills, infusions, and meaty meals, I’m no longer anemic, and following a training program since January has been a (comparative) breeze.

But still, I haven’t said anything. (EPD-COMB: If you reveal the plans, they will fall apart, like they did before!) Even as I completed all of the long runs (30 km, 32 km, 35 km), with the expected aching muscles but no signs of injury, I refused to mention it, and I refused to sign up for the race, waiting until practically the deadline. Now, I’m tapering (which is when you sit around, running much less than before, eating and hydrating, and trying to visualize yourself succeeding) and I realized that while I might still get sick (a cold has been threatening) or injured in some unforeseen way, it’s time to say “I’m doing this.”

One kick in the pants was the realization that today, April 12th, marks thirty-two years since Terry Fox (who attended Simon Fraser University, one of my alma maters) began his Marathon of Hope, in the year of my sister’s birth. Thirty-two years ago today, 21-year old Terry dipped his artificial leg (the real one having been lost to bone cancer) in the Atlantic Ocean near St. John’s, Newfoundland. Then, in order to raise awareness and funds for cancer research, Terry began to run the marathon distance every single day for 143 days, moving across Canada towards the Pacific Ocean, until his progressing disease forced him to stop.

EPD-COMB: Wait. Okay. Wait. Every day? 143 times? With a terminal illness and one prosthetic leg? So much success, despite so many obstacles? Doesn’t compute…doesn’t compute…frying…ahhhh!

Following Terry’s example in a much smaller way, I’d like to ask that if you had any intention of sending me a birthday present, you just think of me on April 22, and make a donation to a cancer charity of your choice instead (yes, if I was less superstitious I would have announced this earlier. Next time!). Cancer research and treatment has come a long way since Terry was alive, but it still has far to go.

So this is one attempt to travel from superstition to reality. To accept that this is not about whether the universe wills it, and it’s not about luck…it’s about pledging to make every step happen, until and unless circumstances force you to stop. On my birthday, then, 42.2 kilometers of communing with Mother Nature. Leaving superstition in the dust. But you can’t really blame EPD-COMB, can you, if it’s cheered by the sight of a balloon floating in the sky, somewhere along the way.

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Spring is sweet (sappy, even)

Spring is sweet, isn’t it?

The other day, walking home from a German lesson and enjoying the flavours of a warm late-March day — soft sunshine, robins chirping, crocus and daffodil-dotted grass, kids running home from school with unneeded jackets flapping in their arms — I decided that the four seasons can be mapped to the four tastes. Spring is sweet; summer salty; fall sour…and we all know how bitter winter can be.

Agree? Disagree? Worth writing bad poetry about? Too bad — I already went there.

Spring is sweet, bud-filled mornings/Summer salty, spicy nights.                                      Fall is citrus-sour leaves in afternoon/Winter bitter evenings without light.

Hey, don’t judge too harshly. When was the last time you wrote a poem?


In any case, Zürich is a beautiful place to be this time of year. Everything imaginable is blooming: the aforementioned flowers; magnolia trees; cherry trees; a ubiquitous and pretty type of  bright yellow bush. On the weekends I’ve been running far up the Limmat River, sometimes all the way to Aargau, a canton to the west of Canton Zürich. Often, once I’ve gone far enough, I’m all alone with the water on one side and the budding forest on the other. I hope to always live in a city that’s within reach of this kind of wilderness.

So, the thing about all this nice weather is that it tends to put a person in a good mood. As a blogger, this is not necessarily a good thing. My will to analyze, to dissect, to critique…it  just sort of floats off on the perfumed breeze. There are things I have considered blogging about (such as how I was convinced to see The Hunger Games movie and quite disliked it), but they have seemed too incongruent, too discordant with the soft strains of spring sounding outside my window. It’s like Mother Nature is telling me to chill out…and unaccountably, I am listening.

True story: today we had a thunderstorm, and it was one of the politest weather phenomena I have ever seen or heard. It basically said this (to be read in an English accent): Oh, excuse me, love. I’m so sorry, but I’ll have to interrupt the day for just a jiffy.  Terribly sorry about this — BANG! BOOM! There, all done, I’m out of your way now. Here, have the sun back.

So that’s the reason for my silence — I’m trying to soak up as much spring mojo as I can. Perhaps I’ll try to take and share some pictures soon. But if there are no substantive posts for a bit, it’s because spring is sweet…and in its clutches, so am I.