Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thanksgiving in Vienna

Two words: Christmas Markets

Somehow, I missed the memo on the existence of the European Christmas Market culture.  Until moving here, I had never heard of them or even thought about how Christmas time is different in other places.  My friend Maureen from OR first mentioned them and sent me a link, so I decided to ask around to see what was the story.  Clearly, Phil and I, and probably about 99% of the people we know have been missing out on what is possibly one of the funnest, most beautiful traditions in the world.

This past Thanksgiving, Phil and I flew to Vienna (for a measly $162 round-trip!) and went Christmas Market hopping.  Initially, I'd figured we'd visit the 2-3 most popular ones, perhaps one each night; but after having an absolutely fabulous time at the first one, we decided we wanted to see them all.  So we had 3 days to hit up 13 markets.  Vienna was freezing, much colder than Belgrade, it stayed at like 30 during the day and in the 20s at night (do realize that "night" starts at about 4 PM here).  In true character with our refusal to let go of our youth, we stayed in a hostel --I know, I know--but it was cheap, clean AND centrally located, so after dropping our bags we made our way through the city.  I almost felt like I was back home in DC.  Don't get me wrong, Belgrade is fine and I like it, but Vienna is a real metropolis.  We rode the metro and had Starbucks and saw some true diversity!   We saw Asians, African-Americans Europeans?, AND some Latinos!..we even found a place called "Casa Mexico" where I stockpiled on some yummy authentic hot sauces, while speaking Spanish and getting coerced to try some strawberry Tequila that was "solo para damas".

Poor Phil's been on Starbucks withdrawal for almost 2 months.  We strolled through their shopping streets, where everything is ridiculously expensive, looking at the sites and making our way to our first market at the Museum Quarter, which is basically a huge square where a bunch of museums are housed.    I made this little video to give you some perspective on what it was like.  Because it was Thursday, there were very few people there, Friday and Saturday got more and more crowded, but never like the insane crowds I've dealt with during Black Friday specials or during holiday shopping at Tyson's in VA or in Plaza in PR.   The quality of this video is very poor, so I apologize beforehand for my lack of cinematography skills.

Those are the famous markets.  There are tons of nice wooden stalls, most of them selling Christmas decorations or wooden toys, then some sold food to take away and/or give as gifts and others food to be consumed then and there.  We had the mulled wine, which was hot and great, and very progressively, they give you a a mug for a 2 Euro deposit and you use it for the rest of the night and get the deposit back, so no Styrofoam cups or plastic, no trash.  Gotta love that about Western Europe.

Phil had the pizza pretzel, I got the one with the chocolate and nuts

So for the next two nights, as soon as it got dark, we went back to the markets.  
This is a second, smaller one near the Stephanplatz.

The largest of them all is the one in front of the Rathaus, the biggest church in Vienna.  
This one was a little crowded, but it added to the ambiance of it all.

And our last night at the SCHÖNBRUNN CASTLE.  We enjoyed hanging out in them so much that the next morning, before our flight, we decided to head up back to the first one for an early lunch.

Of course, we shopped too much, bought things we probably don't need and won't use, and probably paid way too much money for a gold painted walnut dressed as an Angel diva, but that's fine.

All in the Xmas spirit.

You can't see it well, but those are hot dogs.  They stick the bratwurst inside the bread and top it with the little piece they cut out to insert it in.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Turning European

This post might be full of way too many stereotypes, but like I always say, there is always SOME truth to most of them.  So this is the low down on how we have started assimilating to the oh, so slow and posh European lifestyle.  Let's start with the food.  This is a picture of our new staples:

Orangina--healthier than Fanta and Coke, tastier than water, less heavy than OJ
Freshly baked bread--that I go out to buy on a daily basis, super soft that day, hard as a rock the next day
Veggies and fruit in a fruit bowl--no need to keep in the fridge, buy just one each time!
Real butter-- not kept in the fridge either
Eggs--only 10 in a package, feathers sometimes included
Milka--melts in your mouth, your hands, and everywhere else; so creamy and delicious that we have a bar every day. Ok, I have two pieces, Phil eats the rest.
Meat--covered by the MAXI wrapping, never frozen, probably still mooing
Canned meat--discovered at the supermarket with a lady giving out samples; looks gross, tastes great.

Then there's our household appliances:

Could not get any more modern, but really?...the oven is as small as the microwave and the washer only fits two complete outfits, not to mention that once you close it, forget about that lonely sock left behind in the hamper-- it's too late.

The fridge is really new and big and it has its own walk up window to easily access a cold drink. There is an ice dispenser, but they never connected it to a water source, so we don't have ice.  Good thing that we drink Orangina now, which doesn't need ice.

Now the whole problems is trying to figure out how things work and no, the instructions are not in Serbian- they are just pictures.

Everything is so new that the stove top is a touch screen!  That one is pretty easy to figure out, but the washer is a bit more complicated.  We have no clue what the check mark is for, so hopefully we won't need it.  We figure butterfly is for delicate, sheep is for wool, iron is for a cool spin at the end... and XL for Americans?

But my absolute favorite one, which is not an appliance itself, but a true European staple is the little guy next to the toilet that looks like a toilet, but doesn't flush.  The Bidet.

I had never used one before and was definitely a bit nervous and skeptical at first, but again, 10 hours home alone every day lend themselves to random experiments, and after 2 days I can say we will be installing one of these when we come back home.  Why don't we have them, is beyond me, cleaning yourself well afterwards makes so much sense!

In the words of  you wouldn't want to shake my hand if I just wiped it off with paper, right?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Movie Night

This past weekend Phil and I decided to check out the movie theater at the biggest, yuppiest mall in Belgrade, the Usce in New Belgrade.  We had seen the movie listings online before we went and decided for the 7:50 showing of In Time with Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. Now, it's really weird how they are playing a lot of the same movies that are out in the states right now: Paranormal Activity 3, Anonymous, In Time, etc., but they also have ones like Mr. Popper's Penguins, which is so old it might already be out on Netflix Instant Play or worse, in the $5 bargain bin at Target.  Anyway, we go upstairs near the food court and it's like every other mall in the world.  Thousands of teenagers are hanging out. Girls on one side, boys half their size on the other.  They look at each other and giggle.  No one is really in line, they're all just there; looking around pretending to be bored, when you know that they're loving every second of it.  So Phil and I make our way through the crazy crowd and get in line for our tickets.

When we finally get to the cashier, I let him do the talking, while I try to figure out the concession stand menu board above us. Then Phil turns to me and asks "where do you wanna sit", "they're letting us choose our sits".  HUH?-- I'm completely confused. But yes, when you buy your tickets, the girl turns over her computer screen and shows you a sitting chart, kind of like the Ticketmaster one you get online when you buy tix to a concert.  We pick good, centered, back row seats and we are on our way to kill time and see the mall.  Since we know where we are sitting, we can come back right before show time.

We walk around the mall, without buying anything, since everything is majorly overpriced and stopping for ice cream because like most places here, the mall was incredibly overheated.  I literally had to strip down to my undershirt.  We walked around, taking our sweet time, mentioning how awesome it is that we know exactly where we are sitting. The whole time I am thinking I could blog about this under  "Ways that Belgrade is better than DC" - no more standing in lines before Harry Potter premieres, no more crooked necks due to sitting on the first row.  My movie watching experience has officially doubled in luxury, thanks to the brilliancy of the Serbs.  Also, take note that our tickets were about $11 for both, so that is 2 for1 in DC prices AND the concessions are WAY cheaper.  Obviously, they are also WAY smaller, but if I went on about everything that's smaller here, this blog would be called Shrinkin' Serbia. Their popcorn and soda are what normal human beings should eat, with no fake oily butter.  Also, they do have Nachos with that fake orange cheese, but they call them Tacos.  I thought that was hilarious.

When we finally decide we should go inside the theater, because after all, we weren't sure about the length of the previews or if there were previews at all, we walk to the theater and it's packed.  But no big deal, we know our seat numbers.  Then, they turn off the lights.  COMPLETELY.  And we can't see.  So I am fumbling with my cell phone trying to read the ticket and it's row 8 seats 7 & 8. But we have no clue where we are or where that is..and the previews are starting and people are quiet and Phil and I officially become "That American Couple".  I try walking up the stairs counting till I get to 8 and then I whisper to Phil to ask the girl if that's row 8, but my "whisper" is loud, in English and incredibly annoying, even to myself.  She clearly understood me and says, no, it's row 7.  So we go up one more, but it's pretty full and I can't see the seat numbers because people are covering them with their backs, so I again ask Phil to ask people what is the seat number, but he doesn't want to interrupt anymore. So we make our way to the empty part, and apparently someone was already on my seat, but I didn't care, we just sat on numbers 8 & 9, which was really no different.   So much for the easiness of it all.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Another food related post

I finally found something that I will definitely miss once we don't live in Serbia anymore.

About a week ago, Phil and I went to this French restaurant with two friends (wow! I guess we have friends here now) and one of them, who has been in Serbia way longer than the rest of us recommended that we try the Shopska (Šopska) salad.  I am really not much of a salad person, and I am DEFINITELY not a cucumber person, but we all took her advice and we got 4 shopskas. My life proceeded to change forever when I encountered one of the most delicious tastes in my life.  The salad is extremely simple: tomatoes, cucumbers and grated cheese.  The thing is that cheese is not a kind of cheese I'd ever had before.  I asked the waiter what kind of cheese it was, and he just said "Feta", but it is SO not Feta. This cheese miraculously melts upon touching the veggies.  You don't even need salt, oil or any other kind of dressing. Just cut up your veggies, grate cheese on them and serve. Listo.  I was determined to start indulging on this magical salad at home, considering that the tomatoes here are the most wonderful I have ever had and that I only have a little over 700 days to enjoy them.

For the next couple of days, I proceeded to stalk a few Serbs that I know around the embassy, and I was able to draw a couple of conclusions:

1.  Here, Feta just means white, semi soft cheese.  Many cheeses go by the generic term Feta
2.  No one really knows which cheese goes in the salad.

But finally, after basically interviewing more than 6 different people, I was able to get someone to write a name on a piece of paper, take it to cheese counter (as complicated as the meat counter that I first blogged about in my first post) and ask for 500 mg of this soft, salty, miraculous cheese.  I made my salad that night, and I was in heaven.  Of course I couldn't resist and add my own little spin on it, adding yellow peppers in there. Peppers in Serbia are awesome and cheap.

Yeah, my picture is crappy cause I was in a hurry to get to my salad, but here is the wikipedia link for more info:

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Walk up window?

One of the things I really like so far about Belgrade is that there are multiple choices for eating on the go.  If you are hungry and in a hurry, you can just go up to a stand or food stall on the street and grab a bite to eat. No chairs, nothing.   Most of the time it's pizza, or some sort of burger or other types of Serbian specialties (which I will have to do a whole other entry on, once I figure what all of them are exactly), but today I found the biggest, nicest, yummiest walk up window yet.  A huge pastry shop right on the corner of a major Boulevard.

And this is what I ended up getting for about 75 cents.  It was still warm and delicious.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

So what is Belgrade like? A reflection based on 15 days

I think Belgrade is very European, but with many of what Phil and I call "second world traits", such as incessant smoking in open spaces and the constant presence of stray dogs.  The streets and avenues are not grand or wide like in Paris, DC or other European capitals.  There is a ton of commerce everywhere; people walk around at all hours of the day and night.  Pastry shops, restaurants and cafes are plentiful and stay open till 2 AM daily.  There are many stores (shops?), but even if they are American brands, they are not American in their size or selection.  Some stores are so small that you have to first step inside in order to close the door behind you.  That's another thing, doors open to the inside, which is very fire unsafe and kind of awkward if you are carrying things.

On any given street, you will see the following stores in order: shoe shop, underwear shop, "trafika", cafe, bakery.   Repeat on the next block.  There are zillions of underwear shops; my favorite is called Triumph, since that is the feeling I would have if I were able to get into any of their garbs.  They also have one called "Women's Secret", which I think it's pretty funny.

The Trafikas sell cigarettes, soda, lottery tickets, bus passes and magazines.  They are not proper stores, but more of a kiosk.  Serbia is chock full or random kiosks.  Here are two of my favorites:

In case you can't tell by the picture, these are shoelaces.  Yes, shoelaces in every color of the rainbow. Just in case you happen to tear one up while you are walking.  I really wish I could ask how many they sell daily, given that 1.  Most people I've seen dress in head to toe black and 2. Most of them do not wear lace-up shoes.

Along with the underwear stores, there are many of these- stocking kiosks.  The women of Belgrade are very fashionable and in general very attractive, so this one I am sure is a hit.  I do get a kick out of the leg mannequins.

Besides the shops and cafes, the other very particular thing about Belgrade is how people park on the sidewalk. This is SOOOO Puerto Rican!  Half the time I have to walk on the street because the sidewalk is full of cars.  Many times, the sidewalk is MARKED with parking spaces.

This is the street right by the Embassy, one of the main roads in Belgrade. The best is when they decide to come in or out of the parking spot and they are literally driving next to you as you walk along the sidewalk.