The Foodie Fifteen

My Food Tour of Europe

screenshot_20161227-1747372Yesterday, four days after I returned home from three months in Europe, I asked my dad if I had put on any weight while I was away. “Give it to me straight, Dad,” I said. “You’ve always been honest with me, and don’t sugarcoat it.”

He hesitated.

“C’mon, Dad,” I said again. “I want the truth.”

“Weeelll,” he cleared his throat. “Aidan, ah, I think you might have put on a few pounds.”

I looked at him again. “Dad,” I said. “You’re not telling me something.”

“Well,” he said again, trying to build up his courage. “You might have put on the Freshman Fifteen.”

“The Freshman Fifteen!?” I asked incredulously. “But, I am not even in college.”

“Then, call it the Foodie Fifteen,” he replied, before adding with an apologetic smile, “but, that’s what you’re supposed to do in Europe. You’ll take it off in no time.”

I glared at him and ran upstairs to check the bathroom mirror. From the front, I looked exactly the same. Maybe a little bustier, but no real change. Then, I checked the back. My dad was right. My butt was significantly bigger. Europe had given me an ass.

It all began in Italy. I fell in love with Italian food over my first dinner in Rome, and my love affair with Europe’s food didn’t end until I left Stockholm, Sweden just before Christmas.

In the wilderness, I ate to live. In Europe, on the other hand, I lived to eat.

In Rome, I finally found a dish that rivaled caribou heart when I broke my year-long vegetarian diet and ordered pasta all’Amatricianaguanciale (cured pork jowl), pecorino cheese, and tomato sauce. In Florence, I mourned the death of American democracy and the election of Donald Trump as the airy crust of a real Margherita pizza melted in my mouth. In Switzerland, I learned that a backpacker’s budget doesn’t go far in a country of bankers and discovered the wonderful simplicity of a supper of Swiss chocolate and a plate of rösti (hashbrowns). And, in Budapest, I substituted Thanksgiving dinner for two cones of gelato and Lángos, a donut deep-fried in animal fat and topped with sour cream and grated cheese.

These days, as I sit eating my salads in my newly purchased curvy jeans, I dream of my European meals. I think of the pastas and pizzas and spiraling cones of gelato and my stomach gives a long mournful growl. I may be back to salads and long ski workouts, but I don’t regret a single pound. As I discovered in Europe, sometimes the best way to see a country is by eating your way through it.

 

A Christmas Scene Shattered

I went to Christmas markets in every European city I visited, but my favorites were in Berlin. Each night, after dinner, Naomi and I would wander through colorful stalls, sipping steaming Glühwein, stopping frequently to sample fried apple, lebkuchen, and currywurst. We would linger at stalls selling cuckoo clocks, painted nutcrackers, and hand-carved music boxes before pulling ourselves away. On our second night in the city, we found the Berliner Weihnachtszeit Market and sat under the light of the giant Ferris wheel, eating crepes with Nutella and watching the ice-skaters make their way around the rink. A group of older German men stood at a pavilion nearby, drinking mead out of clay jars and singing along to the barrel organ music. I could see their breath in the air as they toasted and clanked their mugs. In that moment, I felt like joining them. I wanted to toast the Christmas market itself, the feeling of camaraderie and joy and warmth that emanated from the men drinking and singing in the cold, from the couple ice-skating and holding hands, from the little boy and girl squealing as the Ferris wheel rotated in the air. 

When I heard about the attack on the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market in Berlin, I thought back to that experience, to the snow and the carols and the crowds of people from dozens of different countries, buying gifts under the lights. It was so real for me.

I count my blessings this Christmas to have seen a piece of the world and to be back home, safe and sound, and surrounded by the people I love.  

Bad Night in Barcelona

Alaska made me strong. My first summer, I worked for a month building a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. For seven hours a day, I peeled ninety 25-foot log poles using only a drawknife. In winter, I snared snow-shoe hares along the frozen Coleen River and trekked through tundra at 40 below. At age 16, I backpacked over the Brooks Range, paddled a whitewater river to the Arctic Ocean, and spent three days trapped on an island with a polar bear. Each experienced tested me, both physically and emotionally. At times, I felt afraid and doubted myself and my abilities. But, over time, I became more and more competent. I saw myself not as a 16-year-old girl following her father’s lead, but as a confident, independent woman.

But, in Barcelona, Spain I learned what it was to feel helpless.

It was our first night in the city. Naomi, my longtime friend and traveling companion, had picked out a tapas bar in El Born, a festive neighborhood known for its restaurants and bars. We got dressed up and walked through medieval cobblestone corridors beneath balconies leaning out into the street. It was a Saturday night and the bars were already overflowing with people. As we passed one, a group of men whistled at us. We ignored them. Both of us had experienced Spanish cities enough to know what to expect when two American girls walked alone. I had never found it flattering, but I never found it aggressive either. This time though was different. It persisted. Every bar we passed, we were verbally harassed.  I thought of the mace my dad had given me sitting on the bed of the hostel and wished I had thought to bring it. Finally, we found the tapas bar, a hole in the wall, and headed for the entrance. A group of rowdy guys moving in a pack intercepted us. They were American, and they were drunk.

They stumbled toward us and moved in front of our path. As we passed, eyes straight ahead, one grabbed me and started laughing. I shouted and twisted away. We sped up, their jeers following us to the door of the bar. But the bar was closed and the men were still watching us. We turned and headed down another street without any idea of where we were going. All we wanted was to find a taxi and go back to the hostel, but the farther we walked the emptier the street became. Finally, I saw a taxi ahead and took off with Naomi following behind me. She stumbled on the cobblestones in her boots. “Run it down and hold it,” she yelled after me. I kept sprinting. I was fifty feet away when the taxi took off. Cursing, I started to walk back to Naomi when I saw two guys on skateboards turn up the street toward her. There was no one else around. The first guy spread out his arms to block her path. The second guy circled behind her. The first one said something and the second one started laughing and moved in closer, while Naomi stood quiet, clutching her purse, frozen against the wall. I ran toward her, holding my steel water bottle over my head. “Leave!” I yelled. The first guy turned. “Leave!” I screamed again. The second guy raised his hands and started backing up. “No — Wait,” he said. Naomi pushed past him. We left the alley and followed a couple ahead of us until the street widened and we reached an intersection. For fifteen minutes we stood on the side of the road, trying to call a cab, but none stopped. Men continued to whistle at us, some with their wives sitting right beside them. As we hailed a cab, one car pulled over to the curb and trailed us as we ran down the sidewalk, the passengers calling after us.

When we got in the cab, Naomi was crying. I was too stunned to feel anything. I thought of the guy with the skateboard in the alley and the look on his face when I yelled at him. He had looked guilty, but also as if somehow he wanted to explain. In the moment, it was all a game: faking Naomi out, circling in, the laughs. I don’t know if he ever meant to do any real damage. But he made us feel powerless.

Riding in the cab through Barcelona, I thought back to my experiences in Alaska. There, I was often afraid. In the Arctic wilderness, it’s hard not to be. But, I had never felt weak or helpless. Instead, my fear, and overcoming it, had empowered me. Bathing in the ice-cold Coleen River, butchering a caribou in the half-light of winter, battling the rapids and the wind in the foothills of the Brooks Range, that gave me grit.

But that night in Barcelona, I felt lost. A part of me wanted to be done with my adventure. I thought about taking a flight back home and camping out in my parents’ basement. But, I didn’t. The next day Naomi and I got up and went out to explore the city; we were reluctant, but we knew that giving into our fear would be worse.

Back In Amsterdam

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Two summers ago, I had the chance to visit Amsterdam on a trip to Europe with my 84-year-old grandmother. During my two days there, I fell in love with the city and swore that one day I would make my way back.

A year and a half later, I am on a train winding its way through the Dutch countryside toward the lights of Amsterdam. For the past six weeks, I have been backpacking around Europe’s great cities as part of my gap year, or, as I like to call it, “My Year of Living Adventurously.” This September, instead of heading across the country to my chosen college campus, I left the U.S. for the sun-soaked beaches of Southern Spain. Since then, I have found myself in Alicante, Barcelona, Rome, Florence, Milan, Bern, Zurich, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Berlin, and now Amsterdam, and I still have Copenhagen and Stockholm to go before I head home for Christmas. For those out there who worry I have gone soft, don’t fear; I have not forgotten grittygal. The fact is that in a number of the cities I visited, my grit was challenged more than I ever expected. In Barcelona, my friend and I were escorted from our youth hostel at four in the morning after being threatened by a crazy-eyed man shooting heroin in the girls’ bathroom. That experience alone made me long for the remote wilds of Arctic Alaska.

In January 2017, I will be returning to my roots, when I head for the hinterlands of Central and South America. But, in the meantime, grittygal will be temporarily overtaken by citygal. So, in the meantime, get ready to hear about beer crawls in Barcelona, romance in Rome, face-offs in Florence, and a body bag in Budapest.

Stay tuned.

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When the Sun Don’t Shine

100_0753On the seventh morning of our trip across the Arctic, I awoke to the sound of rain. Ugh! Another day without sun. July 31st marked a full week of cold and clouds. Even my joints moaned and groaned. I pulled my clothes out of my sleeping bag. They were still wet and, even worse, smelled like stinky feet. Each night I stuck them inside, allowing my body to heat and dry them while I slept. But, somehow they had gotten pushed to the bottom. I grit my teeth and slid the shirt over my head. Boy, what I would give for dry clothes.

At the cook tent, my dad had just finished making oatmeal. And this time, he hadn’t added dried berries or whey. As we neared the end of the backpacking portion of our trip, our supplies were getting low. We’d hoped to catch fish on the Chandalar River, but the rain kept coming and the water was high, so the fish weren’t cooperating. I was starting to get “boat-eyes,” fantasizing about what I would eat when we got to where the bush pilot had dropped off our folding canoe and two bear barrels of food. In one of those bear barrels, I knew I had a bar of dark Lindt Chocolate. That alone kept me going.

Now, my dad was cursing. He’d spilled his bowl of oatmeal. When he stopped swearing, he grabbed his spoon and then, without hesitation, began eating off the ground. “Five minute rule,” he said, grinning. Before we did dishes, Dave passed around the oatmeal pot for us to scrape. “When did scraping the oatmeal bowl qualify as a treat?”

An hour later, after taking down the tent and packing up our backpacks, we were off. The mist hung low over the mountains. I imagined myself walking through the Western Highlands of Scotland–Campbell country. The tundra was like a sponge beneath me. With each step, my boots filled with water, until finally I had to stop to dump them.  As soon as I plopped myself down, I realized my mistake. I had just soaked my butt, too.

Finally, after seven miles of steady marching, we got our first glimpse of the Hulahula River. From, the distance it looked like a snake, curving back and forth until it reached the horizon. I imagined the mountains slowly falling away, the land leveling out, the tundra turning to sand and gravel. The river would lead us to the coast, to the Arctic Ocean.

That night I fell asleep to the cold roar of the river.

I woke up to the sound of my dad celebrating. He was hollering like he had just seen the Packers win the Superbowl.

“Get up, Aidan! Come out!” he shouted.

I was not in the mood for optimism. I closed my eyes and tried my best to ignore him. Even in the Arctic, I needed my beauty sleep.

“Get up,” he yelled again.

I crawled out my sleeping bag, rolled my stiff shoulders, cracked my neck, and stumbled out of the tent. I looked around trying to figure out why my father had woken me.

And then, I realized. The sun!

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