Saturday, March 03, 2012

"Paris is so full of shit. Can't the dogs use the pay toilets?"

This was my first "note to self" after a quick jaunt around the Latin Quarter. It was really my only complaint, and I think the reason it was so shocking was simply the stark contrast between the quantity of shit on the sidewalk and the comparative civility of everything else in Paris. The b.h. And I spent most of the first couple days walking- we did more than ten miles on our first day, plus whatever distance we walked in the Musee d'Orsay. We started out going through the grounds at the Palais du Luxembourg, walked up to the museum, then went up the road to the Grand Palais and the slightly less grant (Petit?) Palais across the road. We stopped for baguettes and cafe noir at a small stand, and when we saw the Arc, we decided to head toward it. A longng walk and 344 stairs later we found ourselves staring down at the French equivalent of Chicago's Miracle Mile, with all of the excess and douchebaggery and perfumed tourists behind us. It was beautiful, but we were glad to be above the fray.
After that we made the long trek to the Eiffel Tower, which we chose not to climb. The Tower was even more striking than I had expected, actually, which was great. We were embarrassed by how blasé we had become by the time we had finished the Impressionists in the d'Orsay, but we couldn't help it. There had been a feeling of overload, of "oh look, there's another world famous masterpiece- oh, and there's another. Are you hungry? I think I want coffee, too." I'm not sure that having such large collections of the same artists (Monet and Manet, in this case) is as impactful (is that a word?) as having just a few. Don't get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It's just that each new thing kind of wipes out the wonder of the last, and by the end of the day I had barely held onto the morning's highlights. Luckily I took literally thousands of pictures.
We walked and walked and ate and looked around with our mouths open a lot. The first couple days we mostly got food from the market downstairs from our apartment and ate inside, collapsing from exhaustion on our couch/bed with a bottle of wine and some fresh bread and cheese after walking all over creation.
Then our friends from Sweden showed up.
You may remember our friend J(male) from the many dinner parties of the last two years, many of which involved more wine than food. He is living back in Sweden now, and he and his wife D joined us on Sunday. Thus began the Bacchanalia. We met for breakfast on the first day, then walked around taking in sights for a couple hours, then stopped for a drink, and then coffee, then more walking, and then a snack and another drink, after which we would find a place to have dinner and more drinks. Since both J and the b.h. are fond of eating feet and brains and rare meat and parts of animals that most Americans wouldn't go near, we were treated mostly very well by the members of staff at the restaurants and cafes. The language barrier was a challenge, but mostly we found it pretty easy to get what we needed. I think my favorite things were the outdoor markets. I was amazed at the array of food to be had right in the middle of any random street. Also, as expected, the fashion was fabulous. I was impressed by the colorful array of stockings and tights on women of every age in the City of Light. I did not, however, find anywhere to shop for the good stuff. I mean, I could have forked over a month's rent for some over-priced crap at one of the designer stores on the Champs Elysees, but that's the same over-priced crap available at the same stores in any city, so I didn't feel inclined. In fact, we couldn't really find much of anything to buy, which was slightly disappointing. I bought a copy of Christpher Hitchens' Blood, Class, and Empire at Shakespeare and Company, but more books wouldn't have been practical. There were stalls and stalls and stores and stores full of tacky garbage - striped "French" shirts that no one in their right mind would be caught dead in, berets bedazzled with the word Paris, and, perhaps most puzzlingly, many variations on an apron with a picture of a kitten wearing both the aforementioned "French" shirt and a beret, with the words "I (Heart) Paris". I am not sure what the market for these products is, but since we were there in the off season, I guess we were mostly spared the type of people who would purchase such things.
The Louvre was everything I expected it to be. We decided not to even try to see most of it, and instead went directly to the Etruscan, Roman, and Greek section. We also managed to see a bit of Ancient Egypt, and stopped by some of the more famous works (Mona and Venus), since we were already walking past. Everything was wonderful. Napoleon's apartments were also quite impressive- a monument to one man's outsized ego. Again I was relieved not to be there during the height of tourist season, since it was crowded enough already. We actually avoided talking in front of other English speakers as much as possible, since neither of us was particularly interested in getting stuck talking to other Americans. This strategy served us well until the last night in town.
The four of us went to dinner at a higher-end, highly regarded restaurant, and no sooner had we sat down and ordered than a couple sat down next to us at the banquette. They were big and loud and stereotypically American in a way that makes me cringe and want to claim Canadian citizenship. When our food started to arrive, the man would lean over, his face only inches from each of our arriving plates, and point and ask "What's that?!". We tried hard to be nice but avoid engaging him. It wasn't easy. At the end of the meal, he finally broke the imaginary wall between our tables completely to have a loud (this tiny, elegant restaurant seated maybe thirty people) conversation about tipping. It was horrible. My favorite was the part where he said, typically of a particular brand of self-important New Yorkers, that when he was younger, he used to live in "The City" (As if there is only one. See #9 on this Post from one of my favorite bloggers for an entertaining observation on the subject). I chose to think of that experience as a useful reminder of how little we had actually had to put up with while we were there.
So yes, we enjoyed Paris. we will probably be going back at some point. Here's a random smattering of photos:

fish at the market

An illicit photo I took inside Shakespeare and Company. The signs said not to take pictures "in order to respect readers", so I used my phone and took them when no one else was around.

This is a stained glass window in the Cluny Museum. I sent this picture as a post card with the caption "Ouch. Quit it." Medieval Christians were not a terribly upbeat bunch.

This was taken at a very touristy little spot next to the bookstore. That's a glass of 2003 Medoc in the foreground, and Notre Dame in the back. Best thirteen Euros I spent all day.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Our day at the Hillinger Winery started with a sunny walk up a windswept hill. The winery itself is built into the hillside in a tiny old town in Burgenland. It looks rather out of place, a sleek Bond Villain lair, all white and glass and modern, and the townspeople were apparently very upset when it was planned. Now that their hotels and restaurants are frequented by wine tourists, criticism has lessened considerably.
Not only does Hillinger make great wine, but their marketing savvy is apparent at every turn. Their packaging is gorgeous, the winemaker himself a larger than life Bond Villain/Viking whose visage can be seen on two large screen plasma TVs at all times in the tasting room/retail shop, in a video introduction to the winery that runs on a loop every twenty or so minutes. When he finally arrived at our tasting, he seemed comparatively small, despite the fact that he towered over everyone and his hands were each bigger than my head. After a lovely meal and a tasting of the entire portfolio, the night devolved into a dance party that once again reminded me how European gaydar is a technology far beyond my comprehension.

After checking my suitcases to be held at the airport (for 3 Euro each - a bargain, I spent several hours on Saturday walking around Vienna by myself. I spent some time walking through the touristy areas again, and then eventually made my way to a neighborhood where the regular people live. I walked through shops, took some pictures at a march against internet censorship, and basically wandered aimlessly, rarely speaking, trying to disappear into the crowd. After a week as a Guest of Honor/Tourist, it was a welcome relief.

The flight to Amsterdam was short, and the b.h. was waiting for me when I got off the plane. We went immediately to our hotel, where one foot high and three inch wide stairs carried us to our fourth floor room. One bag at a time we went, even then sometimes barely getting through doorways. It was hilarious. We went out right away to a Moroccan restaurant that the b.h. had found on the internet. Walking there down dark and mostly deserted streets was a surprise to me since it was Saturday night, and I was thinking that this was the first time since I had arrived in Europe that I felt a bit unsafe, like we might be mugged. I kept a brisk pace and maintained a full awareness of our surroundings. When we arrived at the restaurant, it was easy to see why no one was on the street. Apparently everyone and their very attractive mother was there, laughing and eating and drinking and having a great time. The service was iffy, and we thought it might have been our own confusion about whether to move around to the service part of the bar (in the States that space is reserved for waiters) to order a drink. We ended up waiting til we were seated to get one, which was fine. The food was excellent and the atmosphere lively, and had we not both been so exhausted we would likely have stayed there a long time. More confusion at bill-paying time, as we waited patiently at our table for the waitress to collect our credit card, only to be told ten minutes later to pay at the front. Ah. Cultural differences. No matter, as we were enjoying the scenery and just happy to be together again after a long six days.

We had breakfast at the hotel and lugged our six bags back down the stairs and left them in a closet while we walked around the city. The most striking thing to me was the sheer number of bicycles, which far outnumbered cars and were ridden by people of all ages and types. My favorite were the young men huffing and puffing at the pedals while their girlfriends rode side saddle on the back, smoking cigarettes and looking perfectly blase' about the whole thing. We walked around a bit, taking pictures and seeing sights, and then had coffee, lunch, and a beer at a small cafe across from the massive Heineken Brewery. We went to the State Museum, which was open during renovation and had the bonus of cramming a "best of" into a condensed tour. Both the Van Gogh and Rembrandt museums were closed, so we saw what we could see and then called our friends C and C over near Rotterdam to pick us up. We waited in a nearby pub with another coffee and another beer. I discovered that Amstel makes a delicious Bock beer. Of course they don't export it to the states, so I have always associated their name with the tasteless "light" swill that I have slung for so many years. No more.

C and C ("The Dutch") are looking fabulous. We hadn't all been together since Athfest of 2008, but we were all comfortable together immediately. We stopped on the way to their house at a renovated church that has been converted to a restaurant/organic produce shop. We took a quick tour, had a bite to eat and a drink, and then continued on to their place. They live on a very deep canal across from an old church whose bells are clearly audible on the half hour. Huge ships passed regularly, providing a lovely backdrop the the cozy warmth inside. We got more beer and spent the evening on their couches.
On Sunday we visited Delft. We walked all over, ate some traditional tiny pancakes, drank coffee, bought cheese, took a million pictures. Everything in Europe is so old that I was constantly amazed. The thing about growing up in Chicago is that there is very little history, since the whole city burned to the ground in 1871, and the one building that survived was only built to years prior. Because of this, virtually everything filled me with a sense of wonder, and being in places like Delft made me feel small. I loved it.

On Tuesday we drove to Brugge, Belgium. The only indications that we had passed a border were small signs on the highway and the gentleman who came up to the car window and offered us a handful of chocolate bars as we were entering town. Again everything was stunning, again we walked and walked and ate and drank and drank some more, and I took several hundred photos. We ate a Belgian waffle smothered in chocolate and drank beer in a pub on the square. We went to Gent in the afternoon and repeated the same pattern, changing it up slightly by visiting a Medieval castle. One of the great things about being with The Dutch is that there were always plenty of stops for food, coffee and beer.

Wednesday we went to Rotterdam. I adored it. It was easily the most comfortable I had felt anywhere since I had left home. We walked and walked again, sampling local food (Can we talk about the french fries with mayo and Thai peanut sauce? Whoever thought of that deserves a major award) and drinks, and generally soaking it all in. The Hotel New York was particularly enjoyable. We know that the b.h.'s grandparents were in Rotterdam while his grandfather was in the military, and The Dutch said that this was where his grandmother's ship would have arrived and likely where they would have stayed. Visually, little had changed since that time. The decor was beautiful.
On the way back to the car, I bought a tall, brown, gorgeous pair of D0c M@artens for a ridiculously low price (they were the last pair) at a shop where I could easily have outfitted myself for the next decade were it not for the lack of space in my bags.

That night we ate Indonesian food from a small take-out place near the house. The b.h. and I had never had Indonesian food before, and it was quite a happy discovery. Thursday we stayed at the house, packing and eating and being lazy while we waited to go to the train station.

Saying goodbye to The Dutch is always difficult, but we hope this time it won't be four years before we see them again.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The next day, I got up early and went down to the outdoor heated swimming pool for half an hour before breakfast. It was chilly outside, which made the pool feel even better, and the fog was just lifting over the vineyards as I swam back and forth between them. Yet another moment of "Am I really here?" as I floated on my back in total silence.
Breakfast was odd. I walked up on another wine buyer from another state just as she was saying something about me. I know this because she was stupid enough to say "She's right there" as I walked up, and then she and the guy she was talking to both went very red and jerked around to face me. Huh. Had I possibly said something to offend them? I thought about it for about a minute and a half before remembering that she was the idiot who got so drunk on the first night that she announced to the entire table (winemakers, hosts, and all) that she and her husband slept with their two (four and six year old) boys in bed with them every night.

We went to Anton Bauer's vineyard for lunch. We hiked the vineyards a bit first, where we came across an octogenarian pruner that has worked for the family since before Tony was born. He was about five feet tall, and had a blade sticking out of his boot that ran all the way to his knee. I wish I had understood anything he was saying, because he greeted us all cordially and chatted with Klaus and Tony for several minutes, apparently about how the pruning was going. We eventually landed back at his tasting room, where Tony's wife Gudrun and his sister (I can't remember her name- crap) were waiting with homemade dumpling soup and their whole portfolio lined up on the table. Everything was outstanding. Orders were placed on the spot.

We drove to Burgenland that afternoon to meet the Netzl family. Franz and his daughter Christina, both winemakers, walked us fifty feet from the bus in a very cold wind to gaze momentarily at one of their vineyards, and then we drove a ways to see some of the others before going back to the winery for a full tour. After the tour we had dinner in their tasting room overlooking a vineyard and tasted their full lineup. Once again, post-dinner was a trip down to the cellar. Theirs was only a couple hundred years old, and very cozy, with wines dating back several decades. They opened several for us. One was a blend made as a surprise for Christina's wedding by her father and the groom's father, who also happens to be a winemaker. It was a beautiful story and a delicious wine, and we were honored that they shared it with us. At one point while we were down there, my phone, which was set to silent, vibrated in my pocket. It was an automated reminder that I set for myself that tells me when it is time to attend my weekly merchandising meeting at the Local Grocery. I took a (non-flash) picture of myself with my glass in the cellar and made a note to send it to the people stuck in that meeting when we got back upstairs.

The next day we went to Meinklang, a biodynamic, Demeter certified farm and winery in the middle of Burgenland. Werner, the winemaker, was very sick, but he dragged himself out of bed to talk to us and taste some wine. His presentation was great, his methods incredibly interesting, and his wine was tasty. After that we stopped for a dessert tasting with the Steindorfers. Ernst was ill and under doctor's orders not to get out of bed (the previous week's cold snap had apparently put half the country out of commission), but we were able to taste with his nephew. They had these donut-like rolls that were filled with apricot jam, which I could have eaten ten of and had to walk away from to avoid embarrassing myself.
We stopped at the Steininger tasting room on our way back to the hotel. Birgitta Steininger speaks English, so she sat with the four of us at a long table and chatted over a couple glasses of their fabulous Sekt. I think we had the Sauvignon Blanc and the Gruner. She was just delightful. After we drove the rest of the way to the hotel and I had a shower and a twenty minute nap before making my way back to the lobby. We were meeting at 5:30 to head to Anton Bauer's for dinner, but I went down twenty minutes early to try and send a quick message to the b.h. and my parents. I was greeted two minutes after sitting by K@rl Steininger, who handed me yet another glass of bubbly. I abandoned my iPh0ne and made some attempt at conversation. Soon his daughter Ava arrived, as well as some of my cohorts from the tour group. We tried the Pinot Noir Sekt and chatted for awhile before loading into cars and going to Wagram.
Ant0n Bauer sounds like Alan Richman in the first Die Hard movie. He is as sweet as can be, but he's a big guy and German always sounds angry anyway, so I found the whole night pretty comical. He and his wife Gudrun have a lovely house and a really nice tasting room, and they were generous enough to make dinner for all of us that had arrived early (which was most of us- 15 people, I think). Ant0n kept opening bottle after bottle and making rounds around the table. This was prior to the official start of the trip, you understand, so I was taking no notes and since I hadn't slept in around 30 hours, so I can't tell you most of what we had. What I can tell you is that I refused grappa (made from grapes from the Bauer vineyard) and was given a stern once-over. I did touch each of the three to my lips from the glass of a guy next to me, but I wasn't about to let them pour me two ounces of valuable liquor that I had no intention of drinking. Each of the three tasted distinctly like burning to me, which is also why it would have been wasted on me. After a few hours of this, many of the other people in the group were getting pretty tipsy. I was mostly dumping out my wine after tasting a few sips, due to the aforementioned lack of sleep.
We walked through the winery itself and tasted samples from barrels that were still aging. The room that had all the barrels in it smelled absolutely fantastic. I don't feel like my palate is sophisticated enough to determine whether or not the young wines would develop well or not (I'm sure they will- the guy is a genius), but it was a cool experience nonetheless.
Round about eleven o'clock (on the second day in a row that I was awake), Klaus rounded up most of the group to drive them back to the hotel. There was not enough room for all of us in the two vehicles that were available, so some of us would have to wait with the Bauers while he shuttled the others and then came back for us. That would be another forty minutes. I was in that group. I almost started crying. Klaus smirked as he was walking out the door and winked at me, saying
"You'll thank me tomorrow!"

I slept like a corpse, waking early and feeling pretty good. I popped down to the heated outdoor pool for a swim, then took a shower before going to breakfast, which was a giant and gorgeous buffet of everything I have ever dreamed of eating for breakfast. I ate heartily, drank some delicious and restorative coffee, and headed for the bus. The bus took us into Vienna, where we stopped for our first official tasting at a beautiful hotel downtown. We were joined there by the last three people to arrive. They were from Boston, and had chosen to spend the night in Vienna after arriving the day before. There was a thirtyish guy that I liked immediately, and a twenty-something gay guy wearing far too much cologne, plus a forty-something woman who was such an obvious fag hag (whoops- I believe the PC term for that is now "fruit fly") that it was weird and a trifle embarrassing. We tasted through eight wines from Strauss. They were outstanding. I remember specifically my notes on one of them were that I would like to wear it as perfume. After the tasting we walked around Vienna for an hour or two. I kept lagging behind, snapping pictures with my camera, and then jogging to catch up with the rest of the group. I got a lot of great photos, we saw a lot of cool things, and it was nice just to get out in the fresh air.

For lunch we went to the vineyard of Paul D, a winemaker who is half my age and doing impressive work. His mother looked nearly identical to Sar@h P@lin, and she went around the table quizzing all of us about what we do and where we are from. When the guy next to me said Denver, she said "Denver? Do you know J.R. Ewing?" He didn't miss a beat before responding "Yes I do," despite the fact that J.R was on a teevee show called Dallas, and for that I immediately liked him. Austrian Sarah Palin made her very own Apple Strudel for us, and I finished mine embarrassingly quickly and then helped Denver with his because she was chastising him for leaving some on his plate.

We got a brief respite at the hotel, followed by more glasses of Steininger Sekt in the lobby, followed by an incredible Sekt (bubbly, in case I didn't already explain that) dinner at the Steiningers. We toured the bottling plant, each disgorged our own bottle of Sekt which was then signed by Karl and given to us as a parting gift when we left. When dinner was over, we were brought down into the 800+ year-old cellar under the winery, where we drank our way through probably twenty bottles from various vintages dating back to the 1970s. I was amazed to find how well Gruner Veltliner can age. The whole experience was indescribable. Around once an hour during this trip I would think to myself "Holy shit- this is really happening." And it was. It did.
I was made well aware of this when I woke up the following morning wishing that I was dead. I had been out until two in the morning, and when my alarm went off at seven, I almost started to cry. instead I hit the snooze on my alarm repeatedly, leaving only enough time to get up, shower, dress, and go down to breakfast, which I couldn't possibly eat. I settled for several glasses of orange juice and water, trying desperately to rehydrate before the drinking was to start again.
After breakfast we took a long, cold, damp hike to the uppermost Steininger Riesling vineyard. I was lagging behind this time not for photo opportunities but in case I had to vomit behind a vine somewhere. By the time we reached our destination, I had sweated out most of the prior night's wine, and after a roll with farmer's cheese, I actually enjoyed the vertical tasting. We stood in the vineyard and tried six different vintages of the wine while surrounded by the vines it came from. Very cool. We hiked back to the winery and tasted through the entire still wine portfolio over lunch, which was again prepared by Brigitta and the Steininger daughters.
After lunch we got back in the bus for a journey to the Wachau, where we toured the Tegernseerh0f winery with sixth generation winemaker M@rtin Mittelbach. When we got out of the bus, Martin pointed to the top of an enormous hill and said "We'll walk up there". I laughed, thinking he was joking. He wasn't. We walked. This time I wasn't hung over, so it wasn't so bad. I was back to shutter bugging, and I laughed when I realized how far behind Boston was lagging, especially after I remembered the youngest guy calling me an amatuer for going to bed at two am. We had gluwein made from Gruner Veltliner grapes and these tasty little rolls that were everywhere in Austria that I can't remember the name of. They looked like Kaiser rolls, but they were crunchy on the outside and soft on the insde and way better than any Kaiser roll I have ever had. When we got to the winery, the family was in the courtyard waiting for us with glasses and wine, and Martin showed us a big chunk of dirt from the vineyard and explained that this was why his wines taste the way they do. I was distracted by one of the women (I use that term loosely- she was an immature little twat)hanging eagerly on every word Martin said, leaning close and wearing an unnaturally large grin, trying hard to get his attention. We'll call her Jeannie. All the while, Martin only had eyes for a different woman, who I will refer to as Kathy. Kathy is very cool, very unassuming, and cute as hell. Since Jeannie had been rather annoying up to this point, I was thoroughly enjoying myself watching her suffer. She and some of the other women from her area had a kind of Mean Girls vibe that I found confusing and irritating, and I had been doing my best to avoid them while at the same time wondering what I might have done to offend them since we had barely met. At dinner that night, I sat next to Kathy and discovered that she was having the same experience. Then I found out that the only other woman who was there from Vermont was also having this problem, and we all bonded. The trip got easier at that point. Dinner was in the actual home of the family, which is a building from the 1700's (Probably not that impressive to the British readership, but for me it was a new experience).
I did stay up a bit late that night drinking in the lobby, but I was much smarter about my consumption. Martin had his iPhone in an empty wineglass, blaring music while he cranked open yet another magnum of Gruner Veltliner, when I headed up to bed. I did manage to snag a booking with him to do a tasting at my store while he is in town next week.
So far this trip has been quite the whirlwind. I will attempt to recap a bit now, but since I am in a hotel room in Paris waiting for the b.h. to get out of the shower, I won't have time for much in the way of details.
I didn't sleep a wink on my flight to Geneva. I had a row to myself, and I was tired, and it should have been easy, but it wasn't. On the bright side I got to watch the sun come up over the Alps as we were flying in. The airport in Geneva was ridiculous. There were very few signs in any language, and the directions I got from the rude people that worked there were seriously unhelpful. I waited in line for three days waiting to get a cup of coffee, finally gave up when they shorted the British guy in front of me and then gave him a hard time about it, and wound up at another stand with what I can only assume was much better coffee and what they called a beignet, which was delicious and far more decadent than the ones I have enjoyed in New Orleans. Stuffed with some kind of cheese, it was, and raisins. (That was my first and hopefully last Yoda sentence).The caffeine and sugar combined to snap me sufficiently awake for my next flight. When I got to Vienna, everything was easy and all was right with the world, except for the part where I forgot where I was meeting my ride and I couldn't get the internet to work and my phone was running out of battery. Luckily I am incredibly resourceful and I managed to get in touch and then found the group just in time. Klaus, our leader for the week, met us at a hotel across from the airport with Karl Steininger, whose wine is so delicious that it has nearly brought me to tears on more than one occasion. I nearly hugged the man when we were introduced.
The ride back was quiet. Klaus had one with two of the other women from my area to the train station to pick up somebody else, and it turns out Karl speaks very little English. I didn't know any of the three women who were in the car with us, and I was dozing off (of course) in the front seat when I wasn't trying fruitlessly to engage him in a broken English conversation. He gamely pointed out landmarks at irregular intervals, and mostly we all just starred out the window in disbelief while we drove through beautiful countryside filled- I mean literally filled with vineyards.