Lettuce Wraps

So, I’ve been injured. I wouldn’t bring it up except I’ve gone through phases of being annoyed, then depressed, and then scared by it, but now it’s just gotten downright comical. I’m not a runner. In fact, I have always despised running and haven’t done it since playing JV field hockey in high school. So I usually swim or walk for exercise. Mark and I have a nice treadmill that is integrated with Google Maps, so I like to plot scenic walks for workouts then watch the Streetview pictures while the treadmill adjusts the incline based on the altitude of my course. I mostly love walking along beautiful coastlines, but then I decided to hike down the Grand Canyon because it looked so pretty. This, of course, was all downhill, and suddenly it seemed so easy to break into a trot. Encouraged by the immediate drop in the time to complete my workout, I continued to run, off and on, throughout the course of my 4-mile trek. I finished up the workout feeling very proud of myself, though a little weak in the knees.

I later learned that running downhill is very hard on your knees and for the next couple of day I limped a little, which I chalked up to the years my knees had gone without being forced to run, however, over time, my knees started getting worse, not better, until I began attracting the concerned attention of co-workers and people on the street. Although the small kindnesses of strangers (for example, returning my grocery cart for me) restored my faith in humanity, I hate attracting attention to myself. I had to start asking Mark to help me with some things, and I hate not feeling self-sufficient, so when walking from one room of the house to another became a daunting prospect, I started slipping into depression and frustration. Around the same time, the swelling and pain in my knees expanded to my ankle, compounding the problem. Discussing it with a runner RN friend of mine, she asked if I’d been bitten by a tick recently, as migratory joint issues are a symptom of Lyme disease. As it turns out, I was bitten by a tick back in May and as it also turns out, I’m terrified of Lyme disease, so I promptly totally overreacted, worked myself into a state of panic, and immediately saw my doctor. I haven’t yet gotten the results of Lyme disease test back, so I’m not in the clear, although I have calmed down considerably about it. However, as I was practically unable to walk when I saw him, my doctor gave me an anti-inflammatory pill that gave me a few hours of relief a day and allowed me to walk across the airport to our gate when the day came for us to fly to Charleston for a week with Mark’s family.

I was so ecstatic to get to the beach the day after our arrival, because we never made it to the beach last summer and due to my knees and ankle I hadn’t exercised in over two weeks, so I was desperate to swim. I waded out to a nice spot where I could swim around and watch the pelicans fish and was immediately stung by a jellyfish ON MY SWOLLEN, PAINFUL ANKLE (and the other as well). This was the first time I’d ever been stung, and honestly it wasn’t that bad, so I just ignored it and continued swimming for a couple of hours, blissfully happy. I just found it amusing I’d managed to get stung on my ankles and I was relieved to learn that jellyfish stings weren’t as bad as I’d thought they were.

Two days later – yesterday – Mark and I were in the ocean again, frolicking for a while when all of the sudden I screamed – stung AGAIN, and this time much worse. Again it was both ankles, and again, much worse on the injured one. Mark walked me out of the surf and both my ankles were red, one of them quite puffy from the original injury but with a new, swirling, barbed red mark wrapped back and forth all around the ankle where the tentacle had grabbed me. It was a lot harder to ignore this time, so soon we packed up and went home where my mother-in-law wrapped vinegar-soaked gauze around both ankles and forced me to sit with them propped up until the burning sensation started to subside. Once I was able to walk without grimacing, I realized how funny the situation was. I mean, REALLY? This morning, a day after, I’m still sporting a angry swirled, barbed tattoo although it no longer stings.

And yes, I’m planning to go back in the ocean despite the fact that it’s apparently teeming with jellyfish right now. Because I can’t REALLY get stung on my swollen ankle EVERY TIME I go out, can I? My luck can’t be THAT bad, right?? Yes, I’m stupid enough to try it. I want to swim THAT badly.

Anyway, if you’ve waded this far into the post, I shall reward you not by stinging you where you are most vulnerable, but with a recipe!! As Mark’s mother is in the process of moving and is between houses right now, we are all staying at his aunt’s house. I wanted to make the family dinner yesterday, so before we went to the beach, we picked up some groceries and I got everything all prepped for dinner. I’m so glad I prepped dinner before the beach because all I had to do once I’d recovered sufficiently from the sting was quickly cook everything in a wok, and that was easy enough to do even while hobbling. The concept of this meal was Mark’s. He, his mom, and I were standing around Earth Fare trying to decide what I should make, and Mark made each of us pick a letter of the alphabet, then he used our letters to come up with ingredients, which he strung into a meal idea. Our letters were L, R, and P, which Mark translated to lettuce, rice, and protein (and peppers), then announced lettuce wraps as our meal concept. We ended up changing the rice to cellophane noodles, but I thought lettuce wraps were a splendid suggestion and worked well for a blazing hot day, following some beach time. So we wandered around the aisles as I thought up a rough recipe, which I now present to you. This is a good meal for prepping ahead of time and it easy to put together in unfamiliar kitchens, such as vacation rentals.

Lettuce Wraps

1-2 heads iceberg lettuce (depending on how many you are serving and how many good, large pieces of lettuce you can get out of each one)
6 ounces cellophane (mung bean) noodles
2 1/2 cups vegan “beef” broth, divided
1 1/2 cups bulghur
1 heaping cup TVP granules
1 onion, chopped small
1 bell pepper, chopped small
several cloves garlic, minced or pressed
chili peppers, minced (as many as you want depending on their hotness and your tolerance for spiciness)
6 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
6 Tbsp hoisin sauce
2 Tbsp vegan Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp toasted sesame oil

Put the bulghur in a large bowl and the TVP in a medium bowl. Bring the broth to a boil. Pour 1 1/2 cups of the broth over the bulghur and stir …

… and pour the rest of the broth over the TVP.

Cover both bowls with a plate and set aside. The bulghur may take up to a couple of hours to soak completely; the TVP about 15 minutes. Both can sit for a while longer, though if it will be several hours you may want to put them in the refrigerator.

Put the cellophane noodles in a small bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit for 15 minutes then drain. This was practically impossible to take a picture of, so use your imagination. Whisk together the soy sauce, hoisin sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and sesame oil. I didn’t even think to take a picture of that but I’m sure you can imagine what it looked like.

Prep all of the veggies by chopping. There is a bowl of purple potatoes in this picture because I used them, but they didn’t add anything to the dish and I wouldn’t bother with them next time. (You can see in this picture that I served corn on the cob on the side.)

Now BRAVE THE DANGEROUS, DANGEROUS SEA for a couple of hours.

When you are ready to prepare the meal, heat some oil in a large wok, then add the onions and cook until soft. Add the garlic and hot peppers and cook for a minute or two, then add the bell pepper and cook another few minutes. Add the bulghur, TVP, and cellophane noodles, stirring and cooking until warmed through. Finally, stir in the sauce and cook for another couple of minutes.
<img src="http://ineluctable.org/ieatfood/lettuce_wraps/lettuce%20wraps_4.jpg".

Mark's cousin is sensitive to wheat, so in a small separate pan I made her some that only had TVP and no bulghur.

I put Mark to work separating, washing, and drying the lettuce leaves.

Everyone helped themselves to lettuce leaves, then heaped some of the filling into them and rolled them up. Sriracha would have been nice.

Before rolling and shoving in my face:

Not all of my trips to the beach have ended traumatically. We took an absolutely beautiful sunset walk along the beach one night, which actually was very easy on my ankle.

In the first few days after the Grand Canyon Fiasco, I was able to walk well enough that when the temperature plummeted from 100 degrees to 80 one day, I practically ran to the wildlife refuge, where I encountered several different types of dragonfly.

I was able to add a new animal to the list of species I’ve seen there, although this groundhog running doesn’t make a very good picture.

The bunnies come out close to sunset; here is one stuffing his face with grass.

And some ospreys enjoying a very non-vegan family dinner.

And with that I’m off for more family time while trying to avoid any further attacks to my legs.

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Blue Ridge Mountain weekend

I really do plan to start posting recipes more frequently so I feel guilty making a non-recipe post today, but as it turns out, I have a cold and I simply don’t have the energy to cook anything interesting, let alone photograph and write about it. However, I did just return from a beautiful weekend in the mountains with Mark and I have some pictures, so that’ll have to suffice for today.

As a surprise for me, Mark made reservations at a B&B in the Shenandoah Valley – about a 2 1/2 hour drive from our home in Northern Virginia – and we spent the weekend taking in the sights. Although we stayed in one of their three cottages, which typically do not include breakfast, Fox Hill is vegan-friendly and were able to fit us in for breakfast one morning, where we enjoyed bagels, fruit, and vegan French toast. And I loved the ability to make our dinners in our full kitchen.

Fox Hill grows corn; here is a picture of the back of the B&B from the cornfield:

Mark is always striving to get so far away from city lights that we can see the stars without light pollution. Despite clouds, we had a great view of the stars, although Mark was disappointed we could hear traffic noises from I-81.

We spent much of Saturday driving around the northern part of Blue Ridge Parkway.

Yankee Falls is visible right from the parkway.

Nearby, Pig enjoyed his own little Pig-size falls.

Typical view from the parkway:

Mark enjoyed taking his Jeep down some of the logging and narrow local gravel roads, that seem to go for miles, through dense forest, passing nothing but the occasional abandoned camp site. Here is a creek we found in the middle of nowhere.

And okay, here is the real reason I wanted to do a post! I PHOTOGRAPHED AN OWL! This is a barred owl and I was so excited because a few weeks ago my aunt sent me a picture of a barred owl that my uncle had taken at their cabin in West Virginia and I was very jealous because by nature, owls are REALLY hard to see in trees and as they are nocturnal, you rarely see them flying around, so my hopes of ever being able to photograph a wild owl were pretty low. Then what did we see flying into a tree less than a month later, off some non-road in the George Washington National Forest? A barred owl! He was sooo cute, all hunched down trying as hard to see us through the leaves as we were trying to see him!

Back at Fox Hill, we went back out after dark to take more star pictures, but found the sky completely covered in clouds, with non-stop lightning brightening the sky….which was perhaps even more fun to photograph than the stars.

I don’t like doing a lot of processing with my pictures. For one thing, I don’t like the look of overly processed photographs, and for another, I don’t have the time or patience to spend hours behind a computer working on an image, and for yet another, I’ve had no success getting Photoshop to run on Linux. If I absolutely need to, I can use gimp to do Photoshoppy things, but I’m embarrassingly ignorant on how to use it and all the photography books and sites I read are Photoshop-oriented. However, it’s very rare I don’t make some minor change to a photograph such as adjusting the white balance or exposure, or in the case of wildlife pictures, usually cropping, so I usually spend a minute or two on each photo in Aftershot Pro. I was surprised therefore to see the pictures of a Christmas tree farm I took near Vesuvius, Virginia, looked perfect right off the camera. All I did was convert these from RAW to JPG.

I guess it was the lighting from the storm clouds or something; something about this scene just captivated me.

Sunday afternoon we got back on Blue Ridge Parkway, heading north towards home this time. Blue Ridge Parkway turns into Skyline Drive at Shenandoah National Park, which after its full 105 miles deposited us near Route 66 in Front Royal about an hour from home. This drive took considerably longer than I-81 but is of course magnitudes more beautiful and we stopped at a high percentage of overlooks.

Another first: I see and photograph does and fawns frequently, including in our own yard. So this mother and two children in Shenandoah were, while lovely, not that special.

But….I don’t think I’ve ever photographed a buck before!

Finally, here’s an overlook near the northern end of Skyline Drive.

All in all, an absolutely perfect weekend – minus the cold I seem to have come down with. And now I’m going to curl up with a book and feel sorry for myself until my throat stops this stupid tickling. I have another post I want to do this week, so hopefully I’ll be feeling better soon.

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Very good friends of mine moved to Nashville for work-related reasons a few months ago. I’d have gotten down there to see them sometime anyway, but when Nick Cave’s 2013 tour was announced, getting tickets for the Nashville show at the historic Ryman Auditorium was inevitable – my friend V and I always see Nick together: in DC, LA, or Tennessee!

Other than a brief sojourn through the very edge last summer en route to southwestern North Carolina, I’d never been in Tennessee before. I picked my weekend judiciously: Friday and Saturday temperatures were near 80. Heading south in the US is always a bit of a risk for a vegan; I have preconceived notions of endless barbecue pits, bacon-wrapped cheeseburgers, and gallon jars of mayonnaise. I am very pleasantly surprised to be able to tell you that Nashville is actually very vegan-friendly! The food situation was not at all what I imagined.

My first impression of Nashville was that it is very tiny. I flew in from Dulles on a tiny little commuter plane and arrived in tiny little Nashville International, where I strolled to my rental car on foot. Other than Charleston, which also has a teensy airport, I’m used to huge, sprawling airports – like Dulles – with shuttles, trains, multiple terminals, and miles upon miles of walking. Every time I visit the South I’m also immediately impressed by how friendly everyone is. People are nice in the South. Up here in the Midatlantic and north, people are BORED OF YOU and not afraid to let you know it.

I collected my car and headed to V and C’s house to rouse them from their 9 a.m. slumber. V immediately slipped into hostess mode and we were off to see the sights of Nashville. Which really aren’t that many as it’s a very tiny town. One of the more interesting and unexpected was … the Parthenon?!

Yes, that’s right. Nashville is home to the world’s only full-scale replica of the Parthenon, which I was told by the attendant is even better than the real Parthenon because it represents the Parthenon in its glory, not ruins. I have to admit, the top floor with its immense statue of Athena – created to look exactly as it would have looked in ancient Greece – was pretty interesting. To give you a sense of scale, here is me in front of Athena.

Another fun thing to do was the farmers market. The market comprises a flea market, food court, farmer stalls, and a garden center. V and C bought a bunch of plants to start a garden. And I’m wearing a hat C bought at the flea market.

Nashville’s greatest attraction, however, is Didi Mao! Didi Mao is the 6-month-old kitten belonging to V and C and she’s super, super, super awesome! She looks like Gomez and acts like Torticia. She’s very friendly and playful and we hit it off instantly. LOVE Didi Mao.

So, the food. When she first got there, V promised me there was plenty for me to eat, and although I would never accuse her of lying to me (except about bloody marys, boat drinks, Prosecco, hammocks, and guacamole), I wasn’t really expecting to, you know, see the word “vegan” right on menus. BUT IT’S THERE! Nashville knows what vegans are! Nashville seems to HAVE vegans! (Nashville also has really good beer, by the way.) After a long, adventurous day, we decided to settle in Friday night with a box of wine and what V claimed was the “best pizza in the world”. We got carry-out from Five Points Pizza, which not only has a vegan pizza on the menu, but will make any other pizza vegan with Daiya cheese. And V was right, the pizza was GREAT. Definitely one of the best I’ve had, and I love me some pizza. It may have been better than my pizza!

Nashville even has a few completely vegetarian restaurants. The Wild Cow is almost entirely vegan and really great. It’s one of those rare restaurants where I’m actually overwhelmed by the menu because I have too many choices. I ended up getting the Buffalo grinder, which is tempeh or tofu smothered in Buffalo sauce, with shaved carrots, pickles, and vegan ranch. I had a side of garlicky kale, which was perfect. I forgot to take a picture until after I’d eaten half the sandwich. I’m looking forward to returning here the next time I visit V, and I think she is too.

Across the street from the Wild Cow is Rosepepper, a Mexican restaurant, which we visited Sunday afternoon before I headed back home. I was pleasantly surprised to see a vegan burrito on the menu and it was HUMONGOUS, but I’m afraid it was also rather bland. It consisted of steamed carrots and cauliflower, a few black beans, and rice, and really could have used some spice.

And what about the main attraction – aside from Didi Mao (oh, and that minx V, of course) – of the weekend? Nick Cave was amazing!! Of course. He always is. I’ve seen a LOT of shows over the years and there are some performers who just have an incredible stage presence and can really rock a live show…and many more who can’t. Nick Cave is one of the best live performers I’ve ever seen. And the Bad Seeds are really tight.

I generally hate seated shows, and the Ryman, being the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, has rather church-like pews, but it didn’t seem as bad as most seated shows, and in fact, most people stood most of the time. You were also allowed to take drinks into the venue, which I’ve found is sometimes not the case in the more theater-like venues, such as the Strathmore, where yes, I’m going to see Nick in tomorrow night…

Nashville isn’t a city I’d have gone out of my way to visit, but you have to like a city that identifies so closely with music, and it’s super-easy to get around (there’s no traffic!), there’s a lot of beer, and it’s surprisingly vegan-friendly. I’m looking forward to visiting V, C, and Didi Mao again soon, so SOMEONE HAD BETTER GET THAT HAMMOCK HUNG.

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Foul Mudammas and more

Mark and I have just returned from 5 days in Charleston, SC, where his family lives. You know you like your in-laws when visiting them is your idea. Mark’s uncle, Jeff, is an avid gardener who owns two properties, both of which sprout delicious vegetables year-round. My dream is to one day live close enough to Jeff that he’s able to garden on my property, giving me rights to forage a salad from his plants every day. Many of us pitched in at dinner time while we were there, but Jeff and Mark’s aunt Joyce were able to provide fresh lettuce and other veggies plucked fresh from their gardens. It’s things like that that tempt me to submit to their hints that we should move down there from horrid, freezing Northern Virginia!

Jeff is a big fan of Middle Eastern food and one night treated us to one of his favorite meals – one I’ve never had before – an Egyptian dish called foul mudammas (“foul” is pronounced “fool” and it’s far from foul). Per my request, he and Joyce shared a recipe they originally got from the internet and have been making frequently since then. Foul Mudammas is a peasant food: cheap, filling, delicious, often served as breakfast, and depending on how poor you are, possibly lunch and dinner. Although we had it for dinner, I can see its appeal as a savory breakfast, especially in the summer, its bright bite a lovely way to begin the day for those of us lacking the sweet tooth most American breakfasts appeal to. I think Jeff has made this dish so many times he operates on instinct now, but here is the original recipe he worked from.

Foul Mudammas

1 lb cooked fava beans (either canned or soaked and cooked dry beans)
1 lb cooked chick peas (either canned or soaked and cooked dry beans)
1 cucumber, diced
1/2 cup chopped tomato (about 1/2 can diced tomato)
1/2 cup lemon juice (about 2-3 lemons, squeezed)
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large radishes, sliced
several cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 tsp salt
1/4-1 tsp cayenne pepper (the recipe given to me calls for 1 tsp, which seems like a lot to me…and I like things spicy)

Warm the cooked fava beans and chick peas, then transfer them to a large bowl. Add the lemon juice, garlic, and salt and mash together until about half of the beans are broken down and the rest are still whole. Add the remaining ingredients and combine well. Serve with pita bread.

We served this with pita, hummus, sliced cantaloupe, tossed salad, and Joyce’s crunchy, spicy black-eyed peas, which I should have demanded a recipe for as well. Scrumptious! Have I mentioned that Mark’s entire family happily eats vegan whenever we’re around? Sometimes I forget that’s probably actually unusual, but they are people who frequently eat vegetarian and vegan anyway, so I know we aren’t putting them out. Still, I love it and I know I’m lucky.

Mark’s mom never fails to find some new adventure for us to try while we are down there, with a heavy emphasis on nature, animals, and photo ops for my sake. Mark’s parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins moved to Charleston about six years ago, so it’s not like this is their hometown, but the more times we go down to visit, it’s probably getting harder and harder for my mother-in-law to find new places for us to go. I’d tell her not to worry so much about entertaining us except, well, I LOVE nature, animals, and photo ops. She outdid herself this time with Cypress Gardens, about 45 minutes north of the city of Charleston. Cypress Gardens has several attractions, including a lovely butterfly house that I loved, a very small aquarium which I hated (I do not like aquariums or zoos), and a black swamp which I loved, loved, loved. If you can get past the fact that there is an aquarium there, the swamp is TOTALLY worth the drive if you ever find yourself in the Charleston area.

There were plenty of butterflies fluttering around the butterfly house and perhaps I’ll share some pictures in a later post, but today, how about instead a butterfly-to-be?

In addition to butterflies and caterpillars, inside the butterfly house there were a few turtles, an ankle-biting duck, an observational bee hive (which would have upset me except the bees were free to leave through a dedicated bee exit to the outside), and few different birds including these pudgy quail:

They had to drag me out of the butterfly house, but only because I didn’t know how awesome the swamp was going to be. So, the swamp is black because the cypress trees leach tannins into the water. My mother saw my pictures and freaked out about the alligator (!!! yes!), but until then it hadn’t occurred to me that some people might not find a combination of alligators, vultures, and black water to be the greatest experience ever, but I was in heaven. Almost literally: I commented it was like being in a dream. We were fortunate to be there on the one really nice day (out of a couple very cold and one rainy day): sunshine and 60’s – very beautiful – but really almost any weather is going to give you a variety of awesome photos, beautiful for different reasons. I’m itching to go back on a foggy, misty day. There is a walking trail around the swamp, but what you want to do is take one of the paddle boats for either a self-guided (included in the admission price) or guided (for an extra fee) tour. We paddled at a leisurely rate (or rather, Mark and his mom paddled at a leisurely rate while I sat in the middle seat and rapturously snapped hundreds of pictures), and it took about an hour to complete the loop around the swamp.

The swamp pictures are best viewed in high-res, so the rest of the photos in this post are linked to big versions; just click on them for the full-size version.

The black water is almost mirror like, adding to the dream-like aura. We encountered only one other boat during our winter Presidents’ Day sojourn, so it was extremely serene. This is an accurate photo of what it looked like:

This photo has been color manipulated…because I finally found a RAW image editor for Linux I like so I celebrated with a pink sky.

I was totally focused on how amazing the trees and black water were, but when I managed to look up, I found VULTURES! This involved a few demands to stop the boat so I could take pictures and generally rhapsodize.

The water was very, very calm, with little visible life teeming around. I saw a turtle or two sunning itself, but the greatest part was when Mark claimed he saw an alligator. Now, there was a sign where you get into the boats saying there may be alligators, and a wishful-thinking Renae even boldly exclaimed, “I sure HOPE there are alligators!!” as she stepped into the boat, but neither his mother nor I believed wolf-crying Mark when he cried alligator. Except he DID see an alligator and soon we did too!! We paddled right by him!! How awesome is that??

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know what’s coming next: the infrared shots. Yes, the swamp, like a lot of South Carolina locations, lends itself very well to infrared photography. This one incorporates several elements: you can my mother-in-law’s paddle in the lower left, the super reflective water, and in the distance a couple of park benches framing the trail around the swamp.

Another infrared:

I chose to include this one because it shows one of the white arrows (on the tree in the middle; it’s hard to make out if you aren’t looking for it, but it’s the lighter-colored rectangle on the tree bark) that mark the route that you are supposed to row, although I then realized that if you look at the photo above this one, also on the middle-most tree, there is also a white arrow. Because the swamp is a complex and fragile ecosystem, you don’t have free reign to row willy-nilly throughout the swamp: you are to follow the unobstrusive arrows through a set path. Fortunately, it’s a long, meandering, very interesting route, although you do have to go under a couple of low-clearance bridges, which I found to be part of the charm.

This one really emphasizes the reflectiveness of the black water and the dream-like quality.

Who says I have to convert all my infrared pictures to B&W? How about blue to convey the winter season?

That’s all for tonight…I was going to show you a dog picture or two, but I think I’ll save those for next time.

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Maravilla Guesthouse, Puerto Rico

I decided I couldn’t stand to be in Virginia or even the United States for my birthday this year, but after our two-week European vacation earlier this year and summer trip to the mountains of North Carolina, Mark was low on vacation time and our vacation fund was low on cash, so I needed to find something exotic I could do in just a few days. I did some googling, looking for cheap, close-but-not-that-close, vegan-friendly places and soon found something rather unexpected: a vegan B&B in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico wasn’t really near the top of the rather-long list of places I want to go. In fact, I’d been trying to make Ireland happen, but Ireland was just too much for a few days. I quickly realized, however, that Puerto Rico was genius. It’s a U.S. territory, meaning no Customs hassle – and Mr Best Friend with the expired passport wouldn’t have an excuse not to accompany me – yet not like the U.S. at all. It’s only a 3 1/2-hour flight away. I’d been lamenting the fact we never made it to the beach this summer and Puerto Rico would more than make up for that grievous wrong. It’s inexpensive. According to my adventure map pretty much the entire island is a wildlife refuge. There was someone willing to make me three vegan meals a day in a very meat-centric culture. Puerto Rico it was!

One small drawback is although the flight from the East Coast to San Juan is short, which is great, we had to immediately follow it up with a 2 1/2-hour drive across the island to get to Maravilla Guesthouse. If you make the same trip, follow Margo’s directions instead of your GPS because the route our GPS took us was a tiny, treacherous mountain road that was over an hour of constant hairpin turns and, though hopefully this won’t happen to you, it’s a common occurrence on the island – I had to drive it all in a raging thunderstorm. Was I ever happy to finally arrive at…

We dashed inside out of the rain and Margo showed us to the second floor, our home for the next four days. There are two bedrooms, which four of us were sharing. This was Mark’s and my bedroom. That’s a king-sized bed, which was super comfortable. The other bedroom is nearly as cute, but this one was my favorite.

The hosts, Margo and Mark, are artists, and made much of the furniture and art. It’s an adorable, very comfy, and charming place. Here is the living room. Not shown is a large DVD collection of quirky titles that shares about a 90% overlap with our own collection.

There are also games and books, although we had absolutely no time for any of them!

After we dropped our bags, Margo opened the balcony doors…and our harrowing drive was instantly forgotten. Even in the rain, the view was amazing. The balcony peeks out over a canopy of tropical trees, beyond which stretches hills punctuated by pockets of civilization, the lights of which twinkle bewitchingly at night. Margo showed us how to hang hammocks on the balcony but had just one request…that we keep quiet out there so as not to disturb…THE NESTING HUMMINGBIRD in an eave just next to the balcony!

Staying in the cottage is just one option at Maravilla. Also on the large property is a cabin. I didn’t choose the cabin because it doesn’t have electricity, but if we ever go back, I think I’d like to try it out for a night or two. Yes, there is a cabin in this picture, in the midst of the tropical forest.

Not only does it not have electricity, but parts of it don’t have walls! (And the top floor doesn’t have a roof!) (This is actually neater than it probably sounds!)

I think it’d be fun to cook outdoors…sometimes. There’s propane in the kitchen, so despite the lack of electricity in the cabin, the kitchen is actually more functional than the small one in the cottage, which only has a microwave and toaster.

The cottage kitchen may not be very expansive, but that doesn’t matter because Margo is a great chef! We requested “DIY” breakfasts and lunches and full-service dinners. What that meant is upon our arrival, our refrigerator was stocked with homemade waffles, bread, muffins, pastries, ginger tempeh, fruit, empanadas, bean burgers, cookies, and beverages, all of which we needed only heat up if we wished, and all of which packed well to take with us on adventures. Then at 7 each night we sat down to a 4-course meal by candlelight. I didn’t take my camera down to dinner the first night, but I did take (somewhat crappy) pictures the second two nights. Friday was my birthday. That dinner started of with a green salad (grown on site) with orange fennel dressing:

Followed by walnut soup …

… and vegan cheese cilantro quesadilla with guava topping:

This picture does NOT do the main course justice AT ALL; it was MUCH tastier than it looks here. It’s spinach-stuffed seitan in a wine sauce served with cassava with onions and peppers:

Oops, started on the chocolate cake with orange-chocolate sauce before taking the picture!

Saturday night began with a chayote-apple salad with orange-fig balsamic dressing and cold coconut cilantro soup …

… and breadfruit tostones with Puerto Rican dip (we scarfed these down so fast Margo and her helper felt obliged to make us another serving…soooo good!):

And a main of coconut-fried tofu on rice noodles with vegetables.

Cardamom banana ice cream with chocolate truffle cookie for dessert.

Eating all of this delicious food was probably the highlight for me, but there are plenty of non-food-related things to do on the grounds. One of my favorite activities was chasing lizards.

Friday morning while waiting for the boys to wake up, I took a walk by myself. So lush:

Gorgeous views:

Lemons and limes all OVER the place. And bananas!

In fact, I ran into a sweet couple picking bananas; they very kindly obliged when I asked with gestures to take a picture. I wish I spoke better (read any) Spanish so I could ask them why they were burning the leaves.

Yeah. The tropics.

It started to get hot and humid, so I headed back to the cottage and rounded everyone up to head to the beach. We drove towards Rincon and stopped at the first beach we found, Tres Hermanos. There was NO ONE there but us. The water was close to 80 degrees. It was SOOOOO serene and peaceful. I happily swam for a couple of hours and can’t imagine a better birthday!

Margo and Mark also have a beach house near Rincon, although we didn’t go there so I don’t have pictures. But if we go back, I’d definitely spend a couple nights there as well. I’ve never had an entire sea to myself before!

Saturday we found Gozalandia waterfall, which is about an hour from Maravilla. We had to pay $5.35 to park, although that’s apparently a lot better than how you used to have to access it, which required trespassing on private property, GPS coordinates, and a lengthy hike. Now there’s a parking lot just a 2-minute hike from the falls. Two minutes if it HASN’T JUST RAINED, that is. Of course, it began pouring as soon as we arrived, so we got back in the car and ate our Maravilla empanadas until the sun came back out. The rain had made the very steep trail extremely slick, so we had to be very careful not to break our necks or my camera equipment. It was very much worth it, however. The only bad part was we hadn’t brought our swimsuits, which sucked because the falls pour into a gorgeous swimming hole and the people in it looked like they were having a blast.

How cute are Fortinbras and his boyfriend Stephen??

The SECOND I packed up my camera, the skies opened up again and there was a HUGE downpour. Completely unprepared (although I do very fortunately carry a protective rain cover for my camera bag everywhere I go, so my camera was prepared), we got DRENCHED. And I do mean DRENCHED. I was more wet after walking back to the car from the waterfall than I had been stepping out of the sea the day before. Probably because we had TOWELS the day before! Despite looking and feeling like drowned rats, we headed off to the Arecibo Observatory. A still-drenched Renae:

Arecibo is home to the largest radio telescope in the world. Mark wanted to see it because of its connection to SETI and the X-Files. I wanted to see it because I like astronomy and physics. Fortinbras and Stephen wanted to see it because Science, and it’s been in a lot of movies and even a video game. It was really neat and worth the scary drive that Stephen’s GPS once again tortured us with (we took a more road-like road back home). It looks like alien technology to me! (Please note: I do not really believe aliens made the telescope at Arecibo. Or the pyramids. Or anything else the History Channel insultingly thinks humans are too stupid to have invented.)

Whew, still with me? I’ll let you go in just a sec, but in conclusion, I had a FABULOUS birthday and I highly recommend Maravilla Guesthouse for a vegan, Caribbean getaway. Puerto Rico is an interesting place. It’s quite lovely, although I was disconcerted by the number of dogs on the side of the roads. You can’t drive 50 feet without seeing at least one dog – and perhaps a horse, and often some chickens – lying on, sitting in, or running along the side of the road, which I find terrifying, although only one of them got too near my car. (Well, two if you count one of the dogs at Maravilla, but I was in HER driveway!) You also can’t drive 5 feet without seeing the face of a political candidate stuck on a tree or post. They apparently take their elections very seriously. Although by “seriously” I also mean they drive around in parades, honking horns, with giant flags poking out their car windows, shouting over enormous loudspeakers, encouraging you to vote for their candidate at all hours of the night and day. Between the dogs and horses and chickens and ad hoc political parades and narrow mountain roads without guard-rails and oncoming traffic driving in the middle of the road and 10″-deep rain gutters and rain spilling out of those gutters and constant switchbacks…well, driving in Puerto Rico is an experience. Totally worth it though! Even if the one cat I managed to get near HATED MY GUTS. Look at him run from me!

Aaaand finally, it’s almost over, but today is Mark’s birthday! (Yes, our birthdays are very close, and our anniversary is next week!) Happy birthday, handsome husband!

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Family Vacation Food

Mark and I have just returned from a week in the mountains with his family, where it seemed my camera was permanently attached to my hand, except at mealtimes. Since I didn’t take any pictures of our food, I can’t rightly do a “real” food post about it, but I would like to mention a few of the things we ate because I think Mark’s family is really good at jointly feeding a large group of people with diverse diets. When I met them 11 years ago, I was delighted to find a few pescatarians and vegetarians in Mark’s family. For that reason, their communal meals were never very meat-centric to begin with, but when I joined the family (and Mark later converted to veganism), all their family meals became almost entirely vegan, and everyone was perfectly happy with that. Which, by the way, made me feel extremely welcome in their family, from the first day.

Mark’s family does an annual family vacation, during which each willing adult or household chooses a night to make dinner. Usually when I return home from a vacation, I’m sick of restaurant food and feel like I need to get back into healthy eating habits. After vacations like this, however, I feel great: we ate very well and very healthy all week. Although most of the group are omnivorous, only one meal of the week contained optional chicken for anyone who wanted it. The rest of the meals were all vegan, but they were the sorts of meals that don’t cause you to miss meat.

Mark’s aunt pre-made a large batch of vegan chili and froze it in a few containers, which then doubled as ice in the large cooler they brought, keeping several items that didn’t fit in the fridge at the lodge (which we had filled with an awful lot of beer) cold for a few days. She also pre-breaded pieces of okra and eggplant and froze them, then baked them for a quick side dish our first night there. Mark’s uncle maintains a large and diverse vegetable garden in Charleston, so it’s always a pleasure eating whatever he and Mark’s aunt make, as it’s always chock-full of delicious homegrown vegetables. His uncle pre-made and froze a huge batch of veggie-heavy pasta sauce, which he served over penne one night, with a huge tossed salad made from his own produce. Another uncle made linguine with garlic and local kale and turnip greens (and optional herbed chicken). Mark’s mom made tabbouleh, a potato and green bean salad, and offered fillings for making wraps. His cousins made veggie fajitas with seasoned black beans and lots of sauteed veggies.

I made summer rolls and “drunken noodles”. I brought rice paper wrappers, mung bean threads, and rice noodles with me, then we stopped in a local grocery store to pick up vegetables, fresh herbs, and sauce ingredients. For the summer rolls, I soaked the mung bean threads and snipped them up into smaller pieces with kitchen shears, then rolled them into rolls using rice paper wrappers, along with some “broccoli slaw mix” I found in the store, sliced avocado, julienned carrots and cucumbers, and fresh mint and basil. For a dipping sauce, I mixed together peanut butter, soy sauce, garlic, sriracha, a couple splashes of vinegar, a little brown sugar, and the juice of a lime – some of these ingredients I found in the pantry and were different than I’d have used at home (e.g. white vinegar instead of rice vinegar), but everyone raved about it.

I had had the idea to make some fairly mild drunken noodles as the main for my meal (I figured those of us who like stuff extra-hot could add our own heat on our plates), but I forgot to pack dark soy sauce, and the grocery store in town didn’t stock anything like it, nor did they have vegetarian oyster sauce or anything else vegan I thought would make a decent sub. The closest thing in their small selection I could find was a sichuan bean paste. So that’s what I used, although I think in doing so I gave up whatever flimsy right I had in the first place to call my dish “drunken noodles”. I mixed the bean paste with some low-sodium soy sauce, however, as well as some vinegar, lime juice, and brown sugar. I chopped up a bunch of vegetables and some garlic, but I forgot to use the broccoli and tofu I had purchased. I had two different shapes of rice noodles, so I made two batches of noodles, one mild for children and non-heat-loving adults, and a hotter one. My throat is sensitive to chilis – I often choke when I’m preparing them though I love to eat them – so I made Mark mince some jalapenos for me, most of which I served on the side, but some of which I put in the “hot” wok. I stir-fried the veggies, added the noodles, then the sauce, and lastly stirred in as much basil as I could get my hands on. I also served sriracha and lemon and lime wedges on the side.

Our last night was “leftover night”, which is where we all simply raid the fridge for dinner in an attempt to clean it out. I made a super-quick stir-fry from my forgotten tofu and broccoli, and I served it over the rest of the mung bean threads. For the sauce, I used up the rest of that sichuan bean paste and my small bottle of soy sauce, and added in other stuff I found in the pantry. I was surprised that others in addition to Mark were interested in it, but it was gobbled up.

I do have one food picture from the trip for you, although I took it today at home. I regularly make a trail mix that I keep at my desk at work for snacks, and I took a whopping 4 liters of it with me to North Carolina, where it was devoured in a few short days. It’s mostly nuts, but I’m not crazy about most commercial nut mixes because they are super salty. So what I do is go to the Whole Foods with the best bulk foods selection (in my area of Northern Virginia, this is the Vienna store) and just buy a bunch of everything I like, then mix it all together. Typically I include:

  • raw cashews
  • raw almonds
  • sesame sticks (these are a must; Mark picks them out and eats them all, so I have to buy a huge amount of them)
  • walnuts
  • pecans
  • hazel nuts
  • Brazil nuts
  • dark chocolate-covered almonds
  • dark chocolate-covered raisins
  • roasted soynuts
  • roasted corn
  • raisins
  • dried strawberries
  • dried banana chips
  • etc.

So, a few pictures from the trip. We stayed in this lodge between Highlands and Cashiers, NC:

Overall the weather was great because, being so high in the mountains, it was a relief from the unrelenting heat at home, although it rained briefly most days (and most of one day). Wildflowers on a misty hike:

The Highlands Botanical Garden was pleasant; I particularly liked the lily pads …

… where I chatted about lenses with a friendly old gent and spent longer than I should have taking pictures of a dragonfly.

I also enjoyed the bumblebees ..

… who enjoyed the wildflowers.

There are a lot of waterfalls in the area. This one is under the Iron Bridge.

From the ground on the opposite side:

I especially enjoyed Sunset Rock, a large rocky cliff that affords a stunning westward view of the tiny town of Highlands. The sunset was nice.

As we speed-walked up the trail to the rock (being a bit late for the sunset), we passed another couple walking back down, who somewhat disgustedly warned us, “it’s cloudy.” Well, it turns out I was delighted that it was cloudy because it afforded me the opportunity to capture lightning for the first time.

And now we are home, where it is, surprise surprise, hot. Mark’s Jeep will display the external temperature and I watched it rise from 84 to 96 degrees practically as I crossed the Fairfax County line at 6:30 p.m. Although it looks like it’s about to start lightning here now, an hour or so ago, ole Torticia was feeling extra lazy in the heat.

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Garlic Scape Pesto, Roasted Purple Cauliflower, and nourriture à Nice

Just so you don’t think there will never be anything but vacation and animal pictures on this blog, first a couple sort-of recipes. Last weekend at the farmers market, in addition to my normal basket full of stuff, I scored both a beautiful purple cauliflower …

… and some garlic scapes. This is the first time I’ve ever found garlic scapes at the market! (I have bought them in Asian grocery stores, however.)

There aren’t any new farmers this year but the market seems better than last year; the farmers seem to have a wider variety of vegetables. Which is so very welcome, because believe me, after attending the farmers market in Nice, I was bracing for a big letdown once I got home and went to my own market, even if I had been missing it dearly all winter.

The cauliflower, I just cut up into florets, drizzled some olive oil and fresh lemon juice over them, and sprinkled them with some sel de provence I got in Nice (by the way, I’m going to say “Nice” about a million times in this post; I LOVED Nice) …

… then I roasted it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for a while – maybe half an hour? Until it was done. The magenta coloring on some stalks is from the lemon juice.

The garlic scapes I roughly chopped …

… then I put them in the VitaMix (a food processor would work, of course) with about 1/3 cup cashews (the only nuts I had in the house; I’d have used pine nuts or walnuts if I’d had them), 1/4 cup nutritional yeast, a little salt, a bit of lemon juice, and 1/2 cup olive oil …

… and processed until smooth.

I took some whole baby potatoes (also from the farmers market) and boiled them for about 5 minutes, then drained the water and banged them around in the pan a bit (a tip I read in another blog somewhere but I don’t remember where), then put them in a baker and drizzled with a bit of olive oil and baked at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes.

Then I took them out and stirred in some of the pesto, then returned them to the oven and baked another 10 minutes or so.

I served both with a rice and lentil pilaf, into which I stirred leftover pizza toppings from the night before, which included spinach, caramelized onions, and garlicky sun-dried tomatoes (which I’d made as a take on some amazing sun-dried tomatoes we bought in Nice.

I got more garlic scapes at the market this weekend – not one but two vendors were selling them! What are your favorite ways of using them? I’d love to hear. I’m thinking about pickling some.

Now, Nice Nice Nice. Nice is soooo nice. After a week in Paris, we hopped on a train to Nice, on which we met up with Brad and April, who you’ll recognize as our fabulous hosts in Amsterdam from prior posts and who had come to join us in splendid Nice. Situated in the French Riviera and very close to Italy, Nice has a huge Italian influence. As it’s right on the Mediterranean Sea, many of the restaurants predominately feature seafood. Neither seafood restaurants nor traditional French restaurants cater very well to vegans, but the good news is the heavy Italian influence means pasta abounds, and every Nicean restaurant we visited had a vegan pasta-and-tomato-sauce dish. Mark and I ate a lot of pasta in Nice, to the point of getting a little tired of it, although somehow we managed to go to various restaurants in such an order that the pasta-and-tomato-sauce dish in each one was better than the last, which helped.

Our first night we unloaded our bags in our terrible hotel, then walked to the boardwalk and wandered until we found a reasonably priced beachfront restaurant with outdoor seating and a pasta alla pomodoro on the menu. This was easy to find. After a long day of travel, with a bottle of wine, this simple meal was just right.

I’m a terrible food blogger and didn’t manage to record the names of any of the restaurants we visited in Nice…although you’ll find similar dishes anywhere you stop. Another dinner was in old town Nice (Vieux Nice), in one of the restaurants that turns the tents for the daily market into outdoor seating in the evening. Mark got the linguine with vegetables, which was really good.

And I got the risotto, which was made with olive oil and no cheese, to my surprise! It had mushrooms in it, which I hate, but they were easy enough to eat around and I was just so happy to be able to order risotto that I didn’t care. In fact, on very rare occasions, I am able to eat mushrooms without gagging, and I believe this risotto may have been one of those exceptions.

We found ourselves in Monaco one day (it’s strange how these things happen over there; you wander off and suddenly you’re in another country), where food seemed to be a bit limited, but soon another Italianesque restaurant saved the day and Mark and I got penne all’arribiata, which was surprisingly delicious. Well, I always think penne all’arribiata is delicious, but I was surprised by how delicious I found it after eating Italian food for several days in a row. Love the huge branch of rosemary it came with!

Brad and April had pizza in Monaco (you can see a bit of April’s in the picture above, and in fact, if you look really hard, you can see a bit of Carrie the poodle as well!) and I’ll be honest, I was quite jealous. It’s rare I’ll look enviously at someone’s non-vegan meal because meat and – it’s true – cheese gross me out. But pizza done right (I’m not talking about Dominos pizza, but GOOD pizza) is something I will covet. So the next day in Eze (oh, beautiful, beautiful Eze), when we stopped for lunch in a lovely outdoor cafe at the top of the hill, amongst the medieval ruins, I worked up the nerve to ask the waiter if it was at all possible to get the roasted vegetable pizza without the cheese, and guess what! He didn’t think it was a crazy request at all! He just said “certainly!” I would have preferred a “real” pizza crust (this was one kinda crunchy like toast), but IT WAS PIZZA AND IT WAS GLORIOUS.

I accompanied my pizza with a panache, which is apparently the French version of what I would call a shandy: lemonade + beer, where lemonade = Sprite-like beverage, as in British-English, not American lemonade. Refreshing!

If you are vegan and thinking by now that the French Riviera must be really boring to eat in – pasta, pasta, and more pasta, unless you work up the nerve to ask for cheeseless pizza – well, rest assured that like any other city, Nice has ethnic restaurants that will often have vegetarian options. For example, we found a Chinese restaurant that had several vegetarian dishes, including this Tofu Piquante …

… and sauteed noodles with legumes.

We also went to an Indian restaurant, which was quite good, but the pictures I took were blurry, probably because I was exhausted and starving at the time. But just know you’ll do fine as a vegan in Nice. You might have to pass more restaurants by than you would in, say, L.A., but there are plenty of options. It might be harder to be vegan AND gluten-free as a lot of those options are pasta-related, but I think gluten-free in general is probably harder in much of Europe than it is here in the States.

Nice and Eze were so incredibly beautiful I am going to have to do a final vacation post with a few breath-taking photos later this week, but I’ll finish up this food-related post with a bit about the market, and a traditional Nice snack that is – believe it or not! – vegan. The views were enough to make me want to move to Nice, but attending the market was what really put me over the edge. The open air market operates all morning six days a week (on Monday it is replaced with a flea market), in the old section of the city. At one end, there are many stalls with flowers, although their perfumes were a bit overwhelming and drove poor Mark out. Then you come to several stalls selling dried lavender in just about any form you can imagine, soaps, and some touristy-type things. Then there are a couple of stalls with an amazing array of bulk spices. This is a stall full of dried peppers and other chile-related products.

Finally you get to the produce. It’s all gorgeous. We bought some cherries and wandered around the market eating them and I’m pretty sure they were the best cherries I’ve ever had.

Nestled amongst the produce stalls is a socca station, where a socca-making lady is kept extremely busy. Socca is a Nice specialty made from chickpea flour and it’s generally vegan. I had to stand in line for quite some time to get some at the market (though the market is not the only place to get it). From my place in line, I watched a couple of batches being made. The final portion of this batch was sold before it was my turn.

Fortunately, she whisked up another batch and poured it onto the large cooking tray (under which there is a fire), then drizzled it with olive oil.

When it was finally my turn, I ordered the last three pieces from the batch above, to share with Mark, Brad, and April. Before being cut up, it was sprinkled with ground black pepper, which, combined with the texture, led me to think of the white part of fried eggs when I was eating it; I suppose my mother used to put ground pepper on our sunny side-up eggs when I was a kid. Socca was really good. I think Mark would like me to make it at home, but although I probably will try David Lebowitz’s recipe (linked to above) I think it’s one of those things that you’ve really got to get on location. If you go to Nice, it’s a must-try.

Oh, Nice. I miss you so. Here’s a teaser for what will be my final vacation post. One day I would like this to be home, not a vacation!

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Wildlife of Holland and France

At the end of my last post I said my next one would be about Nice, but I’ve decided to do the animal post next. I’m indecisive like that. There are a lot of pictures, so there will be little gabbing!

A sparrow outside the Paris catacombs.

While walking along the Seine, I spied these three adorable ducklings curling up to take a nap.

Nearby, their mother had her back to them and watched the river. It’s interesting she was more concerned about trouble coming from the water than from pedestrians; she must be pretty trustful of humans. Or maybe she was just admiring the big mud puddle called the Seine. She had no problem with me getting within six feet of her babies.

I realized I take a LOT of pictures of ducks. My first word was “duck” and I probably still sound like a 2-year-old when I shriek, “oooooh, duck!” whenever I see one, grabbing for my camera. This one was at the Rodin Museum. He was lined up with two other ducks and a group of Americans spent 10 minutes laughing about “getting their ducks in a row”, which they found to be a jolly good joke. Despite their repeated urging, I failed to get a picture of the ducks in a row.

One thing we noticed is there aren’t many bugs – at least flying insects – in France. I saw nary a screened window and you can bet I kept those gorgeous floor-to-ceiling windows open at all times, yet there were no bugs in either of our hotel rooms. This is reason alone to move to France. I currently sport about 30 mosquito bites on my legs following about an hour of yardwork. Anyway, there ARE, of course, bees in France, pollinating all the beautiful flowers we saw. (Spring is a lovely time to travel!)

One of our favorite parts of the trip had nothing to do with where we were. The first time we approached Notre Dame, I was snapping pictures wildly when I noticed a figure ahead of us covered in pigeons. It was peculiar; I couldn’t imagine why this person had pigeons all over herself. I even wondered briefly if she needed help as at one point we saw her waving her arm as if to shoo them away. As we approached and passed her, though, we saw she had dried rice that she was feeding them, and Mark and I simultaneously said, “Ohhhh!”. She overheard us and motioned for us to come over. She didn’t utter a single word for the entire 10 minutes or so we spent with her, but she gestured for me to come forward and Mark to take my camera, then she plopped some rice on my head. And soon I was covered in pigeons myself! WHICH WAS AWESOME.

Then it was Mark’s turn and he loved it even more than I did.

This made a huge impression on Mark.

So then Mark decided he wanted to become a crazy pigeon person himself and bought a bag of rice. (By the way, eating dried rice does NOT cause birds to explode; I know someone is going to ask me.) After that we had to stop in every park and other pigeon-gathering area. (After that we also had a lot of rice all over our hotel room floors.)

So we saw a lot of this:

And this:

This little guy was hoping for his share of rice as well.

Now, this is not a good picture by any means, but I’m including it for the variety because it’s the only picture of a European lizard I have. It’s also another example of me stealing lighting from another photographer. We were making the long trek back to our hotel in Nice after an exhausting (but amazing) day; we were fatigued, poor Brad had just hiked a million rocky miles with a bad knee, and we’d just killed a few bottles of wine at dinner, so we were slowly but surely trudging back to the hotel to crash before heading back to Amsterdam the next day, when I saw another photographer examining a stone wall very closely. So I walked up next to him to examine it as well and found this lizard. The lighting in this picture came from his flash….I barely know how to turn my flash on. Also, I must be the most annoying person to go on vacation and/or hikes with. I stop every six seconds to take a picture; I’m sure it is very irritating, although I constantly tell people not to stop for me as I will catch up. I don’t think anyone bothered stopping this time!

This is another picture taken walking back to the hotel after dinner in Nice, on a different night. This gull suddenly swooped down and started fussing a bit at this window. I could hear him impatiently thinking, “KNOCK KNOCK! Anyone home?”

Back in Amsterdam, Brad and April set themselves up for another “walk” that would more properly be termed a “wait for Renae”. Although they live just a block from a metro and tram station in the suburb of Amstelveen and are close enough to bike into the city proper, they also live just a couple of blocks from a cow and sheep pasture, with a creek to boot. The best of both worlds! Because I see a heron every time I’m out, of course that’s the first thing I saw, and although this looks a lot like a great blue heron (which is what we have at home), Brad informed me it is actually a grey heron. They also have purple herons, but I didn’t see one. April said she sometimes sees grey herons sitting on cars. That must be a strange sight.

The promised cows.

Just before “charging” April’s toy poodle…


Why is it I always feel like sheep want to steal my soul? I don’t trust these two.

Brad and April are so lucky. Gorgeous apartment, a stone’s throw from Amsterdam, and THIS is their backyard:

Oooooh, ducks!!!!

Baby ducks!

I really wanted to steal this one.

So many ducks.

This isn’t the greatest picture, but I think it’s funny because I think they are gossiping. Silly gossiping ducks. One headless duck.

I learned that this is a coot.

Look how so-ugly-it’s-cute their babies are!


White swan.

Black swan!

The next day, Brad rustled up four bikes and I tried to remember how to ride a bike with pedal brakes (and promptly fell off the bike onto the handlebar, crushed beneath the weight of my backpack full of camera equipment, and bruised a rib – which I’m still dealing with…Brad thought it better after that incident if he carried my camera stuff while we biked), and we biked to Amstelpark, which boasts among other attractions a petting zoo. I’m opposed to zoos for ethical reasons, but I have to say, I was completely baffled by the petting zoo in the otherwise beautiful Amstelpark. It seemed to consist of three animals: a white peafowl, a wooly mammoth (or some other very wooly beast) standing in a bucket, and an albino kangaroo. Does that strike anyone else as completely bizarre? I think the albino kangaroo is praying, “please send me home to Australia!” in this picture.

A male peacock was perched on a nearby roof, looking into the petting zoo area, feeling “cocky”, no doubt, that he is able to fly and thus escape the fenced-in area containing the wooly beast in a bucket and the incongruous albino kangaroo.

I admit I stood and stared at the spectacle of the albino kangaroo for quite a while, dumbfounded, but finally the others were able to draw me away. We wandered along a path with Brad in the lead, when he suddenly stopped and whispered for me – I was, as usual, bringing up the rear – to quietly come up to where he was standing because there was a peahen sunbathing around the corner. She was magnificent, I tell you!

Then we arrived at a pond where I was completely overwhelmed by waterfowl, including the black swan above. I think I felt something akin to what an infant feels when they get sensory overload. I don’t even know what this is. (Do you? Let me know!)


Not all the animals I encountered were wildlife. This picture was taken in Nice and is titled “I miss Gomez”.

After Amstelpark we biked into the city. The restaurant we wanted to eat in (Ethiopian, yay!!!) wasn’t open yet so we stopped in a bar for a snack and some beers. I was super happy because the bar was playing nothing but the Rolling Stones and there was a very sleepy cat next to our table!

I missed Torticia too!

My favorite animal of the trip, though, was our faithful companion Carrie, who went everywhere with us in Nice and Amsterdam. Here she’s smoking a Cuban. (Mark insisted on buying a Cuban cigar “because he could” and ended up smoking it for about 30 seconds before deciding it was disgusting. Mark doesn’t like cigars. He just doesn’t like the government telling him he can’t BUY cigars. Carrie didn’t think much more of the Cuban than Mark did.)

Whew! Okay that is ENOUGH pictures for one post. There won’t be nearly as many next time, and there will even be FOOD. I even took pictures of dinner tonight – which involves purple cauliflower and garlic scapes – so I’m not lying about that.

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Feeling artistic in Paris

Today I’m going to show you some of the pictures I took in Paris that I felt were kind of artistic. But first a quick story. Of the two of us, Mark is far and away the more creative and artistic. I would never label myself an artist of any sort, whereas Mark actually considered a career in art before becoming an internet hacker. He goes through phases; sometimes he’ll draw for hours a day and sometimes he doesn’t pick up a pencil or brush for weeks or months. He seems to be especially inspired by travel, though, because whenever we go on a trip he draws with every second of downtime he has. He was especially prolific on this trip. I have a picture of him in Nice literally sketching while crossing a street. He never plans ahead well enough to pack drawing supplies, though, so whenever we are in a new city, we have to find an art supply store so he can buy a sketchpad and other supplies. So when we were walking along the Quai Voltaire in Paris and he saw an art store, we had to go in. Although it had two stories, it was small and crammed with stuff and the employees were running back and forth locating items for customers, and I felt completely in the way with my backpack and camera, but I refused to wait outside because I was charmed by how old the place seemed to be and how completely different it was from any place in the States. Finally Mark purchased everything he needed (EXCEPT AN ERASER, which was to haunt us later), we went on our way, and I kind of forgot about it. Until today when I was reading Anna Gavalda’s Hunting and Gathering (at the recommendation of a commenter!) and some of the characters went to an art store on Quai Voltaire called Sennelier. I figured it was the same shop we’d been in because I didn’t recall seeing any other art supply stores, so I googled it and apparently it’s famous for serving Cezanne, Degas, and even inventing products for Picasso. Which is what I love about Paris. You can’t AVOID history or art there. You’re trotting along and hey, there’s Notre Dame. You walk into a store and ask for a bottle of India ink and the great-grandson of the guy who mixed paints for Degas and Picasso retrieves it for you.

Moving on to my sorry excuses for art…. This isn’t a particularly great photo, but something about it reminds me of very early photographs. I think it’s the guy in the middle – his coat looks like he could be from almost any time period, and something about his pose just makes it look old-fashioned. Taken with my infrared camera, as were all the B&W pictures in this post.

As I mentioned, Notre Dame crept up on me.

It’s an enormous building. It’s hiding in this picture.

Another very famous church, Sacre Coeur. This one I had specifically gone looking for.

Sacre Coeur is worth climbing the stairs of Montmartre for just in its own right, but being located on the highest ground in Paris, it’s also a great vantage point from which to see the city.

If you don’t want to climb the stairs you can apparently cheat.

But the stairs really aren’t bad at all and you can stop as many times as you’d like to take in views like this one:

Another place we visited was the Rodin Museum. We only saw the gardens, which are open late on Wednesday nights during the spring and summer, only cost a euro, and contain many of his statues.

The flowers were all very pretty as well.

As were the flowers at the Jardin du Luxembourg.

The Seine was super muddy during our trip; I don’t know why. Brad and April reported it hadn’t been very muddy when they were there a few weeks before us.

It was so muddy I almost prefer it in false color, even though I don’t usually like false color.

At sunset, though, the muddiness was downplayed quite a bit.

No post about art in Paris would be complete without a pseudo-artistic picture of the Eiffel Tower, right?

I am ready to move on to Nice now. (I am also ready to move TO Nice now; it was splendid.) I have a lot of animal pictures I wanted to share, but maybe I can cram all of the animals from the entire trip into a single post. I’m not sure – there ARE two weeks worth of animals… We’ll see. It looks like tomorrow we’ll be spending the third day in a row sitting in a hot house waiting for the air conditioning repair people to make an appearance, so if I don’t die of heat stroke before then, I may post again then. If not, Happy Memorial Day to those of you in America….tomorrow Mark and I will have managed to celebrate (or in the case of France, endure) three different national holidays in three different countries over the course of three weeks!

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Further adventures in Paris

My original plan for organizing my Paris posts is getting harder to implement now that the easily-categorized food post is done. Which are “artistic” shots (I pompously decided I’d devote an entire post to photos I thought were artistic) and which are depictions of things we did? Some of the animal pictures (how did I even amass so many pictures of wildlife in a city?) even overlap with “activities”. Basically the problem is I just want to gush about everything all at once. But I think that’s an indicator that I had a really wonderful time, so I suppose it’s a good problem to have. I hate to tell you, though, that there’s a whole other leg to this journey AFTER Paris and if anything there are even more pictures from Nice, so this dilemma is going to repeat itself and you guys are going to be looking at my vacation pictures for weeks!

Right, so, I’ll try to pull my thoughts together and today talk about some of the important – to me – places we went and things we did. In my last post I mentioned I went to Paris with dreams of doing three things:

1) Order and drink grapefruit juice.
2) See the catacombs.
3) Visit Shakespeare & Company bookstore.

I’ll start with #3 because it happened first. So, I was an English major and one of my favorite books is Ulysses, which Shakespeare & Company is tangentially related to because it was named after the Shakespeare & Company that was owned by Sylvia Beach, who first published Ulysses. (That’s not confusing at all, right?) Both stores were (and the current one remains) hangouts for hordes of important writers. It follows therefore that I needed to go there even more badly than I needed to go to City Lights before I’d ever been to City Lights (which I’ve now been to many times).

I arrive on the scene.

I go in.

I browse. (I know Lisa G/K is going to ask me what I bought, so I’ll beat her to the punch: Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, which I liked, but not as much as the two books I bought in Amsterdam’s American Book Center.)

I go upstairs and take pictures I’m not supposed to be taking (because Sylvia Beach Whitman, the daughter of the original store owner, who was named after Sylvia Beach (not confusing, right?) still allows writers to live upstairs in the “library” section of the store, photography is not allowed up there). BUT I COULDN’T STOP MYSELF. I AM A TERRIBLE PERSON.

There are several painfully adorable little writer alcoves.

Finally I dragged myself back out of the store, where Mark was waiting for me and drawing. (Mark had a sketchpad permanently attached to his hand in France.)

If I ever move to Paris, I’ll be spending many a rainy afternoon in Shakespeare & Company…it’s just my kind of place.

Moving on to #2 on my list above, Mark and I returned to the catacombs, which had been closed for VE Day the first time we went, and after standing in line for over an hour in some drizzle, we finally got in. Some things you might want to know about the catacombs before visiting:

  • They are not open on public holidays (see my prior post).
  • They are not handicapped accessible. This attraction would never be allowed in the United States. The only way down is 130 stairs, and the only way up is 83 stairs in a very tight, very small spiral staircase.
  • The tunnel is over a mile long, extremely darkly lit, slippery in some spots, and ends in some random location nowhere near where you began. Basically, you’ll be lost when you emerge.
  • There are lots and lots and lots of bones. The bones of 6 million people. Many, many bones. Really, more bones than I imagined. Lots of bones.

The first part of the tunnel is an old quarry, which is where this picture was taken. I’ve been puzzling over this picture for the last couple of days, though. At first I didn’t think anything of it; it was clearly a picture of my shadow taking a picture of Mark’s shadow. Mark’s making the animal shape with his hand and you can see the shadow of me taking the picture. Except I’m NOT taking his picture. The picture was taken with my Canon 60D and I always use the viewfinder to take pictures, that is, I always hold it up to my eye. Even if I HAD used the LCD to take the picture and had held it away from my face (which I didn’t), it’s a dSLR – you’d be able to see the shadow of it in my hands because it is very much larger than my hands. And my arms don’t even seem to be properly attached to my body. It’s not the shadow of someone else because I know that Mark and I were alone in the room because we wouldn’t have been acting goofy or disrespectful if anyone else had been there, and besides, that’s the outline of my hair and I specifically recall lining up the shot so both of our shadows were in the picture. So I had no idea why I’m dismembered and don’t seem to have a camera…which seems impossible considering I HAVE A PICTURE.

If you go to the catacombs and you are interested in taking pictures, take a camera that is very good in low light levels. I had to use ISO 6400 and switch to my 50mm f/1.8 lens just for the extra sensitivity. Neither flash nor tripods are allowed. After getting through the quarry part, one of the first sets of skulls you come to are three skulls lined up to the right of a fairly bright light. Take a picture of these skulls because that’s the best light you’re going to get in the whole tunnel.

These are two of the same three:

Same location, further back:

I didn’t see anyone disrespect the “no flash” rule, but what people were doing was illuminating the bones with flashlights in order to be able to take pictures. Mark, who was sketching the whole time we were there, was annoyed by this because it kept messing with his lighting, and he thought it was the same as using a flash and therefore not allowed. However, I think possibly the “no flash” rule is more for the sake of ambiance than the typical museum reason of being damaging to artwork (and certainly not the typical theatre reason of being distracting to the performers!) and that therefore flashlights may be allowed. And what I did was wait for someone to come through and shine a flashlight on a location for their own photo and I’d steal their illumination for my own. Just go prepared for the far-from-ideal situation as far as photography is concerned, if it matters to you.

I’ve been rambling on about practical concerns, but what did I think of the catacombs? They were even better than I’d hoped, actually. I’d become a little worried when I realized they were more popular than I’d thought they were (before arriving, I didn’t realize the lines were always an hour or longer to get in) that they might be too touristy or commercialized. They are emphatically not. They were actually much closer to what a younger, more naive Renae thought they were be like than the older, jaded Renae, who was going to kick something if she saw one more goddamn McDonalds or Starbucks in Paris or Amsterdam. They are very real. You don’t get much more real than walking through a dark tunnel lined with the bones of 6 million people. You’re not supposed to touch them, and you don’t want to touch them, out of respect, but if you are like me, you’ll be backing up trying to line up a shot and you’ll back right into the other side of the tunnel and you’ll realize, “oh, I’m casually leaning against A WALL OF HUMAN BONES”. It’s a moving experience, even if at the end of the two kilometers you’re a little tired of looking at bones. And I like bones.

So we’ve gone through two of my three goals, right? What about le jus de pamplemousse? D’accord, d’accord. I don’t WANT to show you this picture because no one looks very attractive drinking a beverage while photographed from below. One day I’m going to show Mark how to compose a portrait photograph. This is what NOT to do, but it’s also moi, bois du jus de pamplemousse! And DAMN did it taste good!

I’d said that other than my three goals, all I wanted to do was just be in Paris. What else did we do? Most of it I’ll save for a later entry with my artsy pictures, but here are a few other things we did, almost all of them discovered just by walking around.

Walked by the Moulin Rouge…that red moulin being the first windmill seen on my trip despite having come straight from Holland!

Climbed the stairs of Montmartre.

Walked around aimlessly and turned around to find myself in the shadow of one of the most famous pieces of architecture in the world. (Quelle surprise!)

Walked around aimlessly and found the “love locks” I’d first read about on David Lebovitz’s blog, then saw on Jes’s blog a few weeks ago. (I think Jes and I managed to have practically the same Paris vacation. 🙂 )

Went to the garden of the Rodin Museum.

I love this picture of Mark sketching the Thinker.

I told you he was permanently attached to his sketchpad on this trip, like all trips. In fact, some of our best memories are just sitting outside a cafe, sipping wine, me watching Mark sketch or ink.

Or walking along the Seine at night, holding hands.

Whew, okay, that’s enough for one post! More Paris to come, like it or not.

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