Saturday, July 20, 2013

Four Months In!!

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We arrived in Birmingham with our giant suitcases on March 20...four months ago!  It's hard to believe because we have already come to feel so comfortable where we are.

We took the train from the airport to our new neighborhood, Stirchley.  The first thing that happened to us as locals: still lugging our suitcases only a block or two from the train station, a car pulled over to ask us directions to "that store that sells homemade bread" (referring to Stirchley Stores, which currently sells bread baked by next-door Loaf bakery and cookery school).  We already knew the answer and were able to help her out!  Just before pulling away, she asked, "Are you Canadian?"  The first of many.

I think the reasons we already knew about the bread shop are some of the same reasons this move felt so easy and we felt settled here so quickly.  First, because we were living so close before the move (compared to our US-to-Germany move), we could actually both came over to visit three times before moving here.  On two of the trips, we came to Stirchley to look at apartments.  On the first of those we became interested in the area and could focus more on it the second time around - when we started to notice things like the cute side-streets and the cookery school.  On the people front, D's new mentor set us up with a few people he thought we should meet, and we saw them on all the trips so we already knew them a bit by the time we arrived.

My first-ever Stirchley picture: while visiting in February 2013.
Second, I think we owe a lot to - of all things - Twitter.  I didn't have much use for Twitter for many years.  I eventually set up an account to go along with this blog. I started to use it to make Germany-related commentary that was too short to warrant a blog post and to communicate with fellow expats, but I wouldn't say it was terribly useful.  Just an outlet for chatter and #expatweathernetwork.  However, while googling around for Stirchley-related info after we decided on an apartment here, I discovered that there's tons of local information here on Twitter - and it's been unbelievably helpful in finding places to go and things to do and giving me an understanding of the area.  Before we moved I'd already started following several Stirchley-related Twitter accounts, including Stirchley Market, Stirchley Stores, Loaf, Stirchley Park, and Stirchley Happenings (that one seems to have really slowed down, though). Maybe a little too keen, but, well, Americans. We're excitable. Sometimes. Several academic friends here have asked how I always seem to know things that are going on and when I tell them it's a little embarrassing because nearly all of them seem to think Twitter is "a bit weird" or something "I never really figured out". Following useful Twitter feeds is effortless and can really fill up your calendar with worthwhile ideas for stuff to do and make you feel involved even if you aren't very. Volunteer opportunities, festivals, pop-ups, markets, almost everything we've done that wasn't through friends was found out about through Twitter.  If only it had been so useful in Heidelberg!

We caught this exhibit at BMAG on its last day after hearing about it on Twitter.

And those are my theories as to why Birmingham felt like home so quickly.

That and English.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

British Food Is Not Long-lived

I live on a road that sees a lot of big trucks.  Er, lorries.  One morning I tied back the bedroom curtains to find a truck parked outside our house with a huge ad on the side for a campaign called Love Food, Hate Waste. Can't help but get behind that, because I can't stand wasting anything, especially food.

I think I found part of the problem, though:
Shortly after taking these pictures (clockwise: ketchup, tomato sauce/passata, milk), I found my favorite of all: a 300-gram jar of jam that insists it must all be eaten within three days of opening.  Are you kidding me?  I've never used a whole bottle of ketchup in 8 weeks, tomato sauce in one week (it's a big bottle), or milk in three days.  An entire jar of jam in three days?  Forget it.  These estimates are way too low...if people are really paying attention to them and tossing 4-days-opened milk or 9-weeks-opened ketchup then that really is a lot of needless waste.

The funny thing is that even though I've generally just used sniff and eyeball tests or general common sense in the past, and am cynical about these labels, they are still getting to me and I find myself more paranoid about food safety than I was before.  I haven't tossed anything that didn't really deserve it yet, but have considered it more than ever before.

In the US & Germany I don't recall these instructions on packaging, but am I mis-remembering?  I only remember sell-by and best-before dates, neither of which is an instruction to use it all up by then. Are these legit guidelines and I've been somehow lucky not to spend most of my life hurling from eating old food?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Four Surprise British Pronunciations

Separated by a common language and all that.

Clerk is CLARK.
D was the first to hear this one and after he told me about it while walking down the street I spent the next block insisting that it could not possibly be true.
It's true.
Forvo proves it.

Derby is DAR-by.
I actually knew about this one, but somehow believed it only referred to the location, then only referred to the location and the horse thing, then only referred to the location, horse thing, and hat...but it refers to any and all usage of derby ever.  Despite already knowing about the place, horses, and hat, I was still surprised to hear someone talk about "roller darby".
It almost sounds like Dobby.
The US version is actually starting to sound funny.

Oregano is o-re-GA-no.
I didn't know about this until I had a local person bring it up, as they are apparently amused by the US o-REG-a-no pronunciation.  At first I thought they were asking me to pronounce Oregon (a matter of some contention within the US).
Hear for yourself.
Oregano comes from Spanish so this may be another example of the differences in how the US and the UK Anglicize Spanish.

Pants is TROW-zers.
I don't even know what's going on there.

Got any of your own?


Friday, July 05, 2013

Making Frankfurter Green Sauce in the UK


Our green sauce herbs.  See note at end of post regarding the choices.

We got hooked on Frankfurter Green Sauce (recipe at link) when we were in Germany, and fretted a little bit about what would happen if we had to leave Germany.  You see, several of the seven herbs needed to make it are very rare in the US.  Although they can be found at any market in our area of Germany during the right time of year - and an approximation of them can be found year-round in the frozen section at supermarkets - people making the recipe in the US often end up having to make some pretty far-out substitutes.  Our fix was going to be to grow our own green sauce garden so we could have it every year out of our own garden - if we ended up living in a suitable climate.

Turns out we ended up in England!  Suitable climate managed.  Assuming (correctly) that supermarkets and greengrocers wouldn't carry the weirder half of the herbs, we set out immediately to set up a green sauce garden. We lucked out right away at the local awesome-logo-having Stirchley Market, finding sorrel from Martineau Gardens and chervil, borage, salad burnet, chives, and lovage from Urban Herbs.  We also wanted to find the cress we were familiar with from the German herb bundles, but never did: we thought it was a special variety and only later did we realize that it's the same thing as the cress they sell as tiny sprouts in a box at the supermarket....just grown up. Oops. Next year.

Having not had to raise the plants from seed we thought we were all set but there were a couple of challenges along the way.  The first was the damn gastropods in the garden.  There are a LOT of them, more than I've ever seen anywhere in my life...and it turns out they love chervil.  The chervil took off like a shot when we brought it home and planted it and was doing better than anything else, and smelled amazing.  Exactly at that point, it was completely devoured in two days by slugs and snails!  They didn't seem to care much for the burnet planted right next to it, but mmmm chervil.  Sadly we never found more chervil by the time we needed to harvest everything else for the sauce, so we went without this time.

The second challenge was harvesting the plants.  It didn't occur to me until that day that I wouldn't really know what parts of the plant were the best to use, having had someone else harvesting them in the past!  After some googling I found that in most cases, it's the youngest leaves that you want.  The borage might have gone too long. The thick stalks and big leaves develop tons of unpleasant little thorns! I did manage to get some good smaller leaves off of it.

Sieving egg yolks - oddly satisfying.
The only other difference in making green sauce this time as compared to past adventures is that this time we have a single-layer wire sieve to push the egg yolks through as written in the recipe.  Previously we just mashed them.  Sieving the yolks is really fun so if you have an appropriate sieve do it!

The finished product
The end product was totally delicious, just as in Germany.  When we get our own property one day we can make a whole garden of herbs instead of just having a few plants in pots!  That should be awesome. (If we can figure out non-disturbing ways of getting rid of the gastropods. We tried some slug pellets this week and the carnage was horrible, especially since it was mostly snails and you know how I love them....)

It's a bit late in the year now but if you can get some of the goodies, make the sauce!  And that leads me to my side note about this recipe.

Man, you won't see people on the internet being dicks about any other recipe the way you will see it about this recipe.  Try not to be intimidated by people saying it cannot be made with any herb other than the Memorialized Seven: chervil, chives, cress, parsley, borage, burnet, and sorrel.  If they are referencing the officialness of these and EU protection of the dish - to meet that standard you would also have to only make it using herbs grown within a certain radius of Frankfurt, and you probably can't pull that off anyway. You can make substitutions and it will be fine.
This handy chart is the result of evaluating online recipes for green sauce and the herbs they suggest using, with the x-axis being the number of recipes suggesting the given herb.  I guess the best is to substitute from higher off the list than lower - but mostly just use what you find delicious and can get your hands on.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

We went to Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina and I'm finally going to tell you about it!

Well, a little bit, anyway.

D had to go to a conference in Dubrovnik in mid-April. The timing of the trip wasn't ideal since we'd just blown a lot of money on the move (some will be reimbursed, but it hasn't yet) but we decided to make a little vacation out of it anyway since plane tickets are one of the pricier things about getting to this part of Europe and his was already covered.

On the last day of his conference I flew over to join him.  Lufthansa served, of all things, Wurstsalat on the flight!  Normally they're pretty good!  The layover was in Munich; it was my first time through that airport and it's nicer than Frankfurt.  When we got to Dubrovnik I couldn't believe how small the airport was.  There are no jet bridges, the plane just pulls up to the building.  Also, the countryside there is gorgeous and really made me feel like I was somewhere totally different than where I woke up in the morning!

We stayed at an Air B&B apartment in the walled town.  Dubrovnik sits right on the Adriatic Sea and one small, hilly section on the water is completely walled off with unbelievably massive stone walls.  This is the bulk of the heavily-touristed area.  Our host, a grandpa-ish guy named Antun, greeted us and hung around for about an hour serving us fresh almonds and shots of god-knows-what.  There were separate male and female beverages, apparently!  He either didn't speak a word of English or he pretended not to, but he still managed to show us everything we needed to know about the apartment and we all had a nice time.

Dubrovnik was more impressive than it looks in pictures.  I tend to go for colorful places and the gray, gray, gray theme in Dubrovnik didn't look that cool until I saw it in person.  The walls are much more massive than I imagined, and the hills are really steep - no roads up them, just stairs!  Actually, I don't think there are cars at all in the walled city, which lends it a relaxed atmosphere.  The houses are in mazes of stairs and paths with ocean views and terraces and strange little gates - but supposedly very few people really live there anymore.  You can walk the walls for a fee, and the views of the sea and the city are stunning; it's very worthwhile.  The ticket also gets you access to a fortress located across a tiny bay from the walled city.  Although the walls are crowded with tourists, almost no one goes over to the fortress so it's a nice escape (also with beautiful views).

On the down side, Dubrovnik is a major cruise ship stop and as such is often jam-packed with boatloads of tourists.  On the main street in the walled town, most of the shops cater specifically to cruise ship passengers and have special agreements with or are owned by the cruise lines.  The other downer is that things were a lot more expensive than I might have guessed based on previous travel to Croatia.  Dubrovnik is the rich ritzy tourist town and you will pay for that.

It's worth visiting but next time I might try winter when things are a bit more chill.  There were a couple of cranky moments on the main drag when I swore I'd never visit another cruise port in my life.
Dubrovnik Apr 2013

We also spent an hour or two in nearby Cavtat when we had a rental car.  Its center is very small, although there's some tourist-industry sprawl coming out from it.  We had a nice walk along the water, where you could see neat creatures in tide pools!!
Cavtat Apr 2013

We rented a car specifically for a Mostar-based side trip.  I saw a photo of the bridge in Mostar a few years ago and immediately added it to the list of places I wanted to see, so I was pretty excited to discover that it's not far at all from Dubrovnik.  Information on non-car options to get there was a bit thin and sketchy, so we decided to play it safe and rented a car at Dubrovnik airport.

We drove from the airport to Mostar via a Google-suggested route that we later found out is not the usual route for tourists, possibly because it is less scenic or because it goes through less-affluent areas of Bosnia & Herzegovina.  It passed through lots of empty scrubland near the border - impressively empty.  Then I noticed a sign at the edge of the field - "MINE!"  Mines!  Literally, mines!  You could get blown up trying to cross through that scrubland!  People are killed in Bosnia and Herzegovina every year by mines left over from the wars in the 1990s.

Most of our drive took us through the Republika Srpska, the Serbian section of Bosnia & Herzegovina.  We stopped at a churchyard to have a picnic lunch after trying to drive into a town and seemingly getting told to just leave. Maybe the guy was trying to be helpful, but who knows with the language barrier!  Further along, we actually got pulled over in a small city for not having our headlights on in broad daylight, which is apparently a local law.  We couldn't communicate with the cop either and we thought he was trying to fine us for it, but he wasn't.  He was just trying to tell us the speed limit and to have a nice day.  We think.

As we neared Mostar the countryside started to look much more prosperous.  Photos I'd seen of Mostar were a bit misleading.  They made it look like a village, but it's pretty big!  It also saw a lot of fighting in the 1990s, and its famous bridge was actually destroyed in that war.  The city was divided at the time right along the river.  The area around Mostar is also heavily mined.  The town itself seemed quite safe and is now very touristy.  Buses come in from Croatia, including cruise ship outings, so all the businesses take Euro since that's what the passengers have.  We changed some money just to be sure, but then left the country with some of it and couldn't change it back, so take note of that if you visit!  We stayed at a Pension where our German came in handy with the staff (and the fried bread at breakfast was amazing!).  Things were much cheaper than Dubrovnik but still priced up because of people like us.

Oh, and I had a special toilet adventure which I have to share, so maybe stop reading now if you are eating and sensitive to such topics. I might have talked a bit about the squat toilets in Turkey and how I managed to avoid ever having to use one. Usually there were both squat and seat toilets available there, so you just had to wait for your preferred type to become available, which I did. I've also somehow managed to never have to pee in the woods. Anyway, at a restaurant in Mostar, I got up to pee and discovered that there was only one type of toilet - the squatter.  (Not only that, there was a giant axe in the restroom. Irrelevant, but notable.)  I actually wasn't in a desperate situation so I could have just bailed, but after the alcoholic beverage(s?) I'd consumed it didn't seem all that intimidating so I decided to go for it.  And... it was TOTALLY FINE! I didn't fall in or touch anything weird or pee on my clothes or anything.  Hurrah!!  (Sorry to disappoint anyone who was hoping for a disaster tale.)

Mostar Apr 2013

We took a different route back to Croatia from Mostar to hit up some different sites on the way.  One of these was Medjugorje, which might sound familiar if you know Catholicism.  Some kids in Medjugorje claimed to see Mary up on a hill in the woods, and since then the town has made major bank on it, building a big pilgrimage church and selling tons and tons of Mary crap.  It's a do-not-miss for shrine junkies or kitsch fans!  But there's really nothing else in town other than the church and a lot of plastic Mary statues and rosaries, so it was a quick stop for us.
Međugorje Apr 2013

We also stopped in nearby Pocitelj, an ancient hillside town on the Neretva River (the same one that passes through Mostar).  Like seemingly everywhere, Pocitelj took a lot of damage in the 1990s and you can still see this.  It was a sunny day and the setting was charming as all get-out with pretty stone buildings, flowers, ladies selling cones of fruit and nuts, and views over the river. 
Počitelj Apr 2013

Overall, it was a great trip, although it felt a bit rushed and financially the timing was a bit crappy.  Every single day the weather was beautiful, which was a nice contrast to England's dreary spring.  I could sort of start to see why people love to go south for vacation (which has never much appealed to me before - I dislike heat and crowded beaches).   I'd love to do more in both countries.  In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo would be next on my list. (Actually, it's already been on my list for years.) In Croatia, I think I'd like to go back to somewhere in Istria or near there - it was cheaper than Dubrovnik and just as lovely.  We also heard some great things about Montenegro while we were there and I'd love to see it for myself.  The border is very close to Dubrovnik but we couldn't take the rental car over there.  Perhaps next time we should also take the time to learn a few words in some Slavic language just to have a basis - neither of us has ever studied a Slavic language, leaving a big linguistic hole in Europe for us as we have some Germanic and Romance language down. I hope we'll be back in the area sometime, but for now we have a lot going on with family and friends and are on a bit of an international travel hiatus.  One I'm looking forward to. :)

TL;DR: We went to Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and we liked it.  You should look at the photos, it's faster than reading all this and says more.