Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Jordanian Adventure

Last week I was in Jordan (hence the lack of new posts), visiting a good friend of mine from DC.  It was great to leave the cold; dump the hat, scarf and gloves and just wear a light jacket.  Or so I thought, until my third day there, when I woke up and there was SNOW on the ground.  No joke.  It hadn't snowed in Amman in like 17 years, but it had to snow when I was there.  My friend K was an awesome hostess, she drove me basically all around the country in search of good sights and American food.  I thought it was really interesting how even though the local people are a lot more different from us (meaning less western, different customs, culture, religion, language, etc.) the country itself had more western offerings than Serbia.  For example, their grocery stores carried basically everything I would want from back home, soda, cake mixes, condiments, candy.  In Serbia there are tons of things that you can't find.  Because of that, she took me to this awesome Wings and Rings place, where we had REAL buffalo wings with blue cheese dip and a awesome battered onion rings.  You might be thinking, what a waste, to go eat that in Amman, BUT, we did have real Jordanian food plenty of other times, AND this is what I really miss.  We do get hummus, falafel and middle eastern stuff in Serbia.  Hot wings and mozzarella sticks? Not so much.

The first night, K and I went to Petra, which was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. I would rank it right up there with Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China.  What makes it so great, it's not just the Treasury (which is the typical Indiana Jones building that you see in brochures and pictures) but that it's a whole humongous park where you can walk for hours and explore these rocks and caves and ruins.  Plus, the landscape is completely different and cool, unless you happen to live in the desert, which after being there a week, I have no desire to do.

K admiring the treasury

The next day, coincidentally the day that snowed, we went to the Dead Sea.   That was super cool too.  It was freezing cold and I was deathly afraid to get in the water, but I felt like I had to.  After all, who knows when/if I'll ever be there again.  I walked in and it was super salty, like everyone had said and YES, you do float.  You float even when you don't want to float, making swimming incredibly difficult.  They tell you not to put your head underwater, because the salt will get in your eyes and once that happens, it stings like crazy and you can't wipe it off because your hands and clothes are all salty too.  I was lucky not to get any water in my eyes, but K did and it wasn't pretty.  I did swallow some salt, because I was trying really hard to doggy paddle further out, but you just can't, like your legs just keep afloat and won't sink enough to kick right.  After about 20 freezing minutes playing around in the water, we decided to get out.  The Jordanian side of the Dead Sea has a ton of swanky spa hotels/resorts where you can get your mud baths and pamper yourself all day long on the beach.  If it had been nicer out and I had a higher balance in my bank account I would have definitely gone for it.

On Sunday, we spent ALL day watching old FRIENDS episodes, Seasons 4-6 and working on our Pinterest boards and just fooling around.  We also made these awesome Smores cookie bars and ordered authentic food from a local place.  It was rainy and foggy and gross and there weren't really many places to visit with that type of weather.  The next day, K had to work so I went around Amman by myself.  I went up to these Roman ruins called the Amman Citadel and then walked down the hill to the markets and the downtown area of the Old City.  It was really neat to see everything in Arabic and the people running around.  Most women in Jordan don't wear a burqa or niqab, but just cover their heads with a scarf; most of them will wear the robes in neutral colors, but once in a while you'll see them in jeans and a long sleeved shirt and the scarf.  There are also a ton of "westeners" out there, so I didn't really stick out for not having my head covered.  I was determined to talk to someone because I wanted to have a buddy to help me find places and take pictures for me, especially because I didn't have a map.  I finally sort of stalked this older lady that I had seen at 3 different places, and it worked out great, because she was from Atlanta, but was going to do most of the sites I had already seen with her husband, who was in Jordan for a conference.  She was up for lots of walking and sightseeing so we made a great pair.  We went to some more ruins, which at the end of this trip I'm like, once you've seen some, you've seen them all.  I have never been to Athens, but apparently, since I've been to Italy and seen the ruins in Rome and Pompeii and now I've seen the ones in Jordan, I can skip it, which is fine by me.  I'd rather sail around the islands than deal with the madness.  So my new friend Kate and I found the Ben's Chilli Bowl of Amman, basically the most tourist packed-mentioned on every guide book-must go to place in the city.  It was good and super cheap.  We shared hummus, falafels and some bean thing that was surprisingly similar to Mexican refried beans.  Then we started just walking around and went to the Blue Mosque, which is the only one that non-Muslims are allowed to go into.  We had to wear these robes that reminded me of the grim reaper, but I was so happy to be with her because I got my picture taken.
At the Citadel

Markets in Amman

Ready to go in!
Blue Mosque

I forgot to mention that all throughout my trip I got about 6 marriage proposals, hundreds of "you are breaking my heart" and more flattery than I've ever had in my life since I stopped going into the DC Jail. My milkshake was definitely bringing all the Jordanians to the yard.  Damn Right.  So one of them in particular, Waleed, a cab driver by the citadel, was especially friendly.  He was all charismatic, wanting to show me the city in his cab for a "very good price" and I was like, dude, leave me alone, I WANT to walk!  But then I remembered that I had wanted to do the day trip into another city the next day and I needed someone to take we talked and negotiated and he did name a good price so the next day he picked me up and took me there.  He asked that I call him on the way back so that he could take me home, but I didn't feel like calling and waiting around, so I just took a random cab that was there.

My last day, I chilled at K's house in the morning, and in the afternoon she came to pick me up to take me to Jarash, which is 45 minutes north of Amman and has tons of ruins.  We had a pretty good time planning K's friend's upcoming wedding, which we decided should be held around the ruins, and guess who we saw there?  My new friend Kate and Waleed, the cab driver, together.  So I had mentioned him to her and she decided to call him up and ask him to take her around. So I took the opportunity to ask Waleed to take me to the airport the next morning, since my flight was at 6 AM.  We got it all planned out, K and I and her friends went back to Wings and Rings for my last meal and we watched some more FRIENDS before saying good bye and going to bed.

If I hadn't shown up on time, these columns would have fallen

The next morning, Waleed picked me up and he had a present for me.  OMG.  He said, "it's so that you never forget me".  I guess I won't be forgetting him any time soon.

Waleed's present.  My name-heart-his name.

Monday, February 13, 2012

No Reservations

Since I haven't really ventured out much in the snow and the cold, I don't have any new pictures or good stories to share. Instead, I thought I would write about some of my everyday observations and experiences on one of my favorite topics, food.  Just like at home, meeting friends at restaurants/bars or cafes is definitely a huge part of the Belgrade lifestyle.  There are zillions of places to eat and drink in this city, and even though there is not a ton of variety, the food overall is of high quality and affordable.

Authentic Serbian restaurants serve heaps of sausages, steaks, chicken, lamb, veal (which I think is little cruel, but nonetheless), and two really cool, authentic Serbian specialties: the Ćevapčići (ћевапчићи) and the Pljeskavica ( Пљескавица).  I am not exactly sure of their difference in terms of seasoning, but they are both basically made out of ground beef and pork, mixed together in the form of sausage links or a giant hamburger patty, respectively.  They are both really, really good and can be served either in a sandwich or a platter, with plain yogurt or tzatziki sauce, pickled cabbage, paprika (which is what they call the red pepper flakes), and tomato, and if you go to the right place, they'll put the french fries inside the pita.  They both cost less than 5 dollars and are conveniently sold everywhere in kiosk type establishments.  (See my second post: Walk up Window).  The fancier, sit-down restaurants usually serve either traditional Serbian cuisine (let me not forget ajvar, my favorite spread of roasted red peppers, eggplant, garlic and chilli) or your typical international fare.

They also have pizza everywhere; and it's good pizza, thin crust, plenty of sauce, all the toppings imaginable, including fried eggs!  Same goes for their pastas., all types of sauces, freshly made, delicious. Since the tomatoes here are just so freaking good, you can get the most generic pasta dish and it is guaranteed to be great.  One funny fact is that the Serbian word for tomato is paradajz, which is basically pronounced as paradise, which also incidentally, is EXACTLY what they taste like.  They also use prosciutto as the meat in a lot of their cream sauces, which is also an awesome thing.

I actually did find a picture of me eating some Ćevapčići
Now, eating out is one thing, but drinking is a whole other story.  Getting drinks at dinner is definitely cheaper than in the US.  You can get pretty good bottles of wine for 15-20 dollars at nice restaurants.  They carry lots of Spanish, Italian, South American and Australian wines, similar to those seen in the US.  They also have their own ones, which are really good, but not necessarily cheaper, not sure why.  Our favorite is the  Radovanović; Cabernet Sauvignon; Serbia – Krnjevo, so if anyone out there sees it in the US, definitely give it a try, you won't be disappointed.  On the other hand, rum is WAY more expensive than at home and about a thousand times more expensive than in Puerto Rico.  A Bacardi bottle goes for almost 30 bucks!  They also import more run from Cuba, which we obviously don't see at home, so that might add to the Bacardi high prices.

Most restaurants do feature full bars, but specialty drinks are not a "thing" the way they are in the US.  I have been to a few places where they do serve gimmicky and fun mixed drinks, but that is definitely not the norm.  So what do most Serbs drink?  At least the men, they drink their national liquor, a super potent concoction that can knock you out after just one shot, it's a sort of brandy made with mostly grapes or plums, Rakija. I've only had it once, ironically enough, at an embassy event when we first arrived.  I had one shot and it was intense.  The taste to me is just like pure alcohol, but it is the drink of choice and a source of pride for many Serbs and they sell it in this really neat shaped bottles, so they make nice gifts and pretty much guarantee a wild night if opened at a party.  In restaurants people will order a shot, which they don't really take as a shot, they actually sip it slowly, something I could never do, at the beginning or end of the meal. Sometimes both.  I guess it's one of those things you need to grow up with in order to really love it.   Not like my sopska salad, which I fell in love with at first bite (see old post about it here).

One thing about going out here that really frustrates me is that a lot of restaurants, even when they look empty, won't sit you without a reservation.  It seems like the hard core capitalistic mentality has not really reached restaurant owners.  For one thing, they are happy to let people sit for hours at a time just nursing a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes (which are conveniently sold at the restaurant/bar/coffee shop).  There is no kicking people out or quick turnaround of tables.  If you have a reservation at 8 PM, you can pretty much stay till they close, which here, is usually pretty late, like 2 in the morning.  Most Serbs will go out to eat at around 9-9:30 and even later on the weekends.  Sometimes I even feel like they don't eat at all; as it is not uncommon to see people just sipping drinks and smoking for hours and hours.  I, personally, am starving by 7, so I like going to dinner early.  Plus, that way you don't get all the smoke in your face.  You would think that this should create a win-win situation, but being the procrastinator that I am, I usually don't decide where I want to go and when until 2 hours before I want to get there.  So when I finally call or just show up to places, they are always "full", even though they're completely empty, because all tables have been reserved for later.  Many times the reservation won't be for another hour or more, but they're not used to people scarfing down food in just an hour.  So my new tactic is to outright ask for what time the tables reserved for and say, "hey, we are american, we eat super fast, we promise to leave by that time".  Which I am sure they consider weird and rude, but I definitely don't mind leaving if it means that I got to eat where I wanted.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

SuperSNOW Sunday

So while everyone at home is getting ready to pig out and watch the Superbowl, we are homebound getting ready to pig out and watch movies instead.  If we were in Budapest, please KNOW that we would be attending this.

There's a bit of glare, so if you can't read it, it's UNLIMITED  food at TGI Fridays for about 40 bucks; but it starts at 10 pm, and we are 3.5 hours away.  Plus, the game won't end till like 3 AM our time.  Also, the roads are pretty dangerous right now to drive all the way there.

It snowed A LOT on Thursday night and the ground is pretty much frozen.  Phil and I were smart to follow a colleague's advice and buy ourselves some Yak Trax, which I highly recommend to anyone who goes out in the snow and ice.  So when we went out walking yesterday, we didn't fall down, which is amazing considering that when we were in Montreal 3 years ago, we each hit the floor at least twice in three days.

This is what Belgrade is looking like these days:

We made a pit stop at Phil's favorite place (take a wild guess!)

Let's just say this place is way classier than at home

and on the way back we found this near the market, a real Serbian snowman/woman!

Снешко белић