How to Live like a Local When Traveling

Staying in an apartment gets you into a neighborhood and off the beaten path. You can become part of the neighborhood, if only for a little while. I stayed at an Airbnb in Paris for 10 days, and one in Amsterdam for three days. It was my first time to use Airbnb, and I loved the experience of having an apartment as home base.

After I dumped my bags in the apartment, I explored the neighborhood. I wanted to check it out during the day so I could feel comfortable returning there at night. I wanted to see what restaurants were nearby; and the nearest laundry, yoga studios, public transportation, and food markets.

Amsterdam canal

An Amsterdam canal in Oud West area – Airbnb apartment was one block away.

Random arch in Paris

Street arch near the Airbnb apartment in Paris

Synagogue in North Marais

Synagogue de Nazareth in Le Marais – often guarded by soldiers

The Paris apartment had a “full-size” refrigerator — still tiny by U.S. standards — and I went to markets for breakfast foods, snacks, and beverages.  I was able to eat bread and cheese as the French do because I found a market that sold gluten-free baguettes.  They were delicious — crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, as a regular baguette would be. I noticed that cartons of eggs in markets are not refrigerated. Eggs were on shelves just like cans of peas. I bought and ate a half-dozen unrefrigerated organic eggs. I live to write about it.

Organic market in Le Marais

Organic market in Le Marais (Paris)

Gluten-free baguette and log of chevre cheese

Paris market purchase: Gluten-free baguette and chevre

Market mural in Marais

Market Mural in Le Marais

To feel like a local, I cultivated favorite places. In both Paris and Amsterdam, I was recognized as a repeat customer at some neighborhood cafes. It was great! Although, maybe it was my poor French and lovely — as opposed to “ugly” —  American-ness they remembered (??)

Anyway….

In Paris, I found a charming creperie called Divin’ Art close to Arts et Metiers Metro station. The restaurant was a straight shot from the front door of my apartment building. Divin’ Art had only been open for business a week. It worked for me because all their food is gluten-free. It was reasonably priced and the restaurant had a small bar with a nice selection of hard cider.

To think that, before I found Divin’ Art, I had spent hours one Sunday trying to find a gluten-free creperie I’d read about. That creperie’s website claimed it would be open on Sunday. It was closed when I got there. I was starved and indignant!

Divin Art exterior

savory crepe

Savory crepe: fried egg, caramelized onions, and smoked salmon

In Amsterdam, I found a great breakfast place and became a “regular.” The second time I went there, they remembered my special order from the day before. If you’re ever in Amsterdam, check out Ted’s All Day Brunch in Oud West (Old West) Amsterdam. It has wifi and is two blocks up the street from my Airbnb apartment.

Teds All Day Brunch

Ted’s All Day Brunch

Ted's All Day Brunch - my breakfast

My breakfast – scrambled eggs with sides of mushrooms, smoked salmon, and sauerkraut

Another way to live like a local is to continue your usual activities. In Paris, I took a vinyasa yoga class at Make Me Yoga. I was lucky to have stumbled upon a studio that accepts drop-ins. The studio was in an area called Oberkampf in the 11th arrondissement, and a walkable distance from the apartment. The teacher offered to teach the class in English because of me, but I asked her not to. I wanted to be guided through the poses and meditation in French. I followed along just fine by watching her and the others. I even started to understand the French instruction for sun salutations.

A bonus was seeing a French yoga student in an Ohio State Buckeyes shirt. She had no idea how it warmed my heart to see O-H-I-O, my home for real.

Make Me Yoga classOhio State Buckeye Fans in Paris

Now a few words about the apartments themselves:

The Paris AirBnB. I selected a studio apartment for the wifi, location, price, and full kitchen. It was a third floor walkup. My first impression was shock when I put in the door code at street level and entered. In the U.S., the building might be considered derelict based on the entry and uneven stairways. The lonnng walk from the front door to my set of staircases was creepy. Actually, that’s an understatement.  I dreaded what it would be like to enter the building at night. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

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Creepy hallway

Well, chalk this up as a bohemian experience in the Marais. I memorized where the lights were in the hall so I wouldn’t find myself in the dark, and set the fears aside.

Bottom line: the apartment itself was updated, unlike the common spaces of the building. I knew the building was seriously old, not that its ancient history should excuse chipped paint, falling plaster, hanging wires, and an epic lack of aesthetics. Regardless, when I returned to the apartment at the end of a day, I was “home.” The apartment was clean and the area was safe.The building itself didn’t lose its creepiness; but, as I always say … you can get used to almost anything. (However, if there had been any pests and bugs, I think I would have lost my mind.)

A note about the apartment’s shower stall: it was the tiniest ever — a perfect little 2×2 square. Unbelievably, it had a luxe array of shower heads, including the rainfall. I had to sidle out of the shower sideways to exit, and I’m not a big person.

Tiny shower stall

The street where I stayed had an entrepreneurial, semi-gritty, and artsy vibe. It was also near three Metro stations, which was a huge plus. A variety of good cafes, bars, Pilates and massage studios, coffee shops, boutiques, bars, galleries, supermarkets, and a guarded synagogue were in walking distance.

My building was next door to two bars, whose clientele gathered at tables and chairs set up outside. It seemed the courtyard below amplified the noise. Even with windows closed, I couldn’t sleep until the bars closed around 2 a.m. Being unable to sleep when I was ready to sleep was my deal breaker. Had I only known….

[BTW, my nephew and his partner stayed at an Airbnb in Marais also. It didn’t take long to figure out we were not only in the same part of the Marais, but on the same street! He said their staircases were so steep they had to hang onto a rope while going up three flights. They called their apartment Les Miserables.]

David's Airbnb

Les Miserables staircase.

The Amsterdam Airbnb.  I got great sleep at this apartment! The bed was so comfortable. The studio was a spacious and clean third-floor walkup. It was adjacent to the host’s rooms, and I had complete privacy, a bathroom and washing machine. I also had for my use a small refrigerator, electric teapot, and pantry. The apartment’s location was Oud West, near the city center and Jordaan. It was also a walkable distance from the main museum district. If I’d used my fitness tracker, I would have racked up the step count in this walkable city.

View from Amsterdam apartment

View from Amsterdam apartment

Amsterdam rowhouses, houseboat, and bike

Amsterdam row houses, houseboat on the canal, and a bicycle

The apartment building’s architecture and staircases were typical of Amsterdam. I had never climbed such steep stairs in my life. They were the closest thing to a ladder that a staircase can get. Thank goodness the host met me at the door and carried my bag up. He was very accommodating and helpful throughout my visit. When it was time to leave, I wondered whether the bags and I would both make it down the stairs. I admit I thought about throwing my bags down each flight. (See my Airbnb review of the apartment here.)

Amsterdam apartment staircase

Amsterdam apartment staircase

All in all, staying in apartments gave me a different way to experience Paris and Amsterdam. I was happy with the neighborhoods I selected and the price I paid for the apartments. And, I would definitely stay in the Amsterdam apartment when I visit the city again!


Comfort Food Redemption: How to Beat the Diet Blues

You just discovered your diet needs an overhaul if you are to be healthier and feel good again. You go into mourning immediately with the thought of losing the food you’ve loved and eaten forever.  No worries — you’ll go through these 8 stages of grief:

  1. Deprivation: Someone stole my cheese. All I can think about is cheese.  I’m miserable.
  2. Panic: What the hell CAN I eat, then?  All food choices seem to have vanished.
  3. Denial: I don’t eat much sweets or bread. Maybe if I have just one cookie, I’ll be OK.
  4. Resignation: Uh oh…I’m bloated (or constipated). Not OK.  Misery is assured.
  5. Fear: Will I ever be invited out to dinner again? Where will I find something to eat?  I’m doomed to eat bland, medicinal food.
  6. The Quest: I need help, answers, hope, or a big fat cheeseburger on a sesame seed bun.
  7. Re-education: I need a moment to digest the restrictions. The real work is in figuring out the food possibilities.
  8. Joy: There’s a lot of great stuff out there.  I’m re-training myself to eat mindfully, and, hey, the results are surprisingly yummy!

As a gluten-sensitive person, I experienced every one of these stages.  I’m also lucky enough to be an inveterate researcher and cookbook collector; so, when I reached Stage 7, I gathered my curiosity, energy, and tools to make myself food-happy again.

Eliminating much-loved foods and ingredients from your diet is unsettling.  You lose your balance.  So, I’ve road-tested a summer comfort food meal for you, guided by delicious recipes in Well Fed – Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat by Melissa Joulwan.  Check out Clothes Make the Girl for more recipes and information on her cookbooks. Joulwan follows a Paleo regime.  I have found Paleo to be most compatible with my love of meat and need to be gluten-free.  It is not the only solution for a healthy diet, but we will visit others as time goes on.

SUMMER COMFORT FOOD MENU:

Grilled Chicken Thighs

Coconut Almond Green Beans

Jicama “Potato Salad” 

Dessert (Optional) – Easy fruit crisp recipe from an earlier post found here.

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THE RECIPES
Grilled Chicken Thighs

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Summertime is about The Grill. The key to richly-flavored, moist and juicy thighs is to smoke them. First, season the thighs with salt, pepper, and paprika.

To smoke the thighs, I use Woodstock Lump Hardwood Charcoal.  You can help this along with 4-5 fast-starting briquets.  When the briquets start to get that ashy color, check the wood charcoal.  When there are no more flames, you’re ready to go.  There should be a lot of smoke, but no fire. Put your chicken on the grill. Cover and smoke the meat for an hour.

Coconut-Almond Green Beans

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These green beans are a riff on the ol’ green bean casserole, but without the canned beans, canned soup, frozen onion rings, and outrageous amount of sodium. All I can say about these green beans is WOW!!  I followed this easy recipe to a tee.  If you love Indian food, these beans will resonate with you.  If you aren’t familiar with Indian food, these beans are a real flavor festival. Truly, cool beans.

Jicama “Potato” Salad

Jicama

I adapted this recipe from Well Fed. Don’t be intimidated by this 3-part recipe — it’s easier than you think.  Jicama is a large root vegetable from Mexico.  It is a great substitute for potatoes because its texture and flavor is similar to a raw potato,  with one caveat — start preparing the jicama early, really early—like 48 hours before you serve the meal!

Jicama Ingredients:

2 pounds jicama

1 teaspoon salt

Salad Ingredients:

4 strips sugar-free, nitrate-free bacon

4 large hard-boiled eggs, peeled and diced

1 medium  stalk celery, diced (about ½ cup)

About 1/2 cup of diced medium yellow or (and) red onion

½ cup fresh cilantro, minced

2 tablespoons dried chives

¾ teaspoon dried mustard

½ teaspoon paprika

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground pepper

¾ cup olive oil mayo (see recipe below)

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Instructions:

Jicama

Dice the jicama into ½ inch cubes.  (It’s up to you whether or not to peel it.)  When you’re done chopping, you should have about 6 cups of cubes.  Place the jicama and salt in a slow cooker and add enough water to cover the jicama by about 2 inches.  Cover and cook on high for 12-24 hours.  The longer the jicama simmers, the more tender it becomes.

[Note: The recipe says to cook in a slow cooker for 12-24 hours.  I suggest 18 hours, as a baseline, and check every 6 hours after.  My jicama was fork tender at 23 hours.]

When the jicama has cooked, drain, pat dry, and chill in the refrigerator until you’re ready to assemble the salad.

Salad

Cut the bacon crosswise into ¼ inch wide pieces.  Place the chopped bacon in a cold skillet, turn the heat to medium-high, and fry the bacon until it’s crisp, about 3-4 minutes.  Remove from the pan with a wooden spoon and drain on a paper towel.

Place bacon, eggs, celery, onion, parsley, chives, mustard, paprika, salt, and pepper in a large mixing bowl.  Blend with a rubber scraper, then add jicama and mix again.  Add mayo (recipe below) and gently fold until combined.  Chill for 20-30 minutes before eating to allow flavors to meld.

Olive Oil Mayo Recipe

Ingredients:

1 large egg

2 tablespoons Lemon juice

¼ cup + 1 cup light-tasting olive oil (not extra virgin!)

1/2 teaspoon wasabi

½ teaspoon salt

Instructions:

Bring all ingredients to room temperature (including the egg).

1.  In a blender or food processor, break the egg and add the lemon juice. Put the lid on your appliance and allow the egg and lemon juice to sit and come to room temperature together, at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.

2.  When the egg and lemon juice are room temperature, add the mustard, salt, and ¼ cup oil to the canister.  Blend on medium until the ingredients are combined.  Incorporate the remaining 1 cup oil by pouring very, very slowly.  You want the skinniest drizzle you can manage; this takes about 2-3 minutes.

3.  If you’re using a blender, you’ll hear the pitch change as the liquid begins to form the emulsion.  Eventually, the substance inside the blender will resemble traditional mayonnaise, only far more beautiful. (Do not lose your nerve and consider dumping!) Continue to drizzle slowly.

4. When all of the oil is incorporated, revel in your triumph and transfer the mayo to a container with a lid.  (Mark a calendar with your egg expiration date—that’s when your mayo expires, too.)

5. Mix 3/4 cup of olive oil mayo with the assembled salad.

This meal is satisfying, filling, and beautiful to look at. The ingredients, for the most part, are familiar and comforting. Does this menu make you food-happy again?

– Cheryl

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Balancing Travel- Part 2 – Madrid

Hola, Madrid!

Three nights in Madrid bookended my travel in Spain, and kicked off my birthday celebration. I started with two nights at the five-star Hotel Silken Puerta America. Believe me, it was a real treat! Each floor had different interior designers. Mine was ultra-modern and the room appointments were high-tech. (I loved the elliptical-shaped doorless shower.) Hotel staff even had to show me how to work the room lights and operate the window blinds! So, in some ways, design trumped function, but it was a five-star experience nonetheless.

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The hotel’s breakfast buffet had all I needed to recharge my energy after the overnight flight. It featured different types of ham, spanish omelets, roasted vegetables, Manchego and other regional cheese, pastries, breads, fruit, fresh-squeezed juice, tea…. Yum!  I found the buffet immediately after I checked into the hotel because I was starved.  Of course, I went back for seconds…and back to the buffet the next morning, too!

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I hit the streets with a light agenda of exploring historic Madrid and a few other sights. I love public transit and got around the city on foot, bus, and train. Madrid’s Metro is a world-class system. And, you can even borrow a book from an actual library — almost like a capsule —  on the subway platform! I haven’t seen that anywhere else… so far. (My hotel, by the way, was in the Salamanca district, near two subway stations and the bus line to the airport.)

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First, I went to Palacio Real de Madrid (Madrid Royal Palace) near Metro Opera. I didn’t go inside. I wasn’t wowed by the exterior, or the gardens and grounds compared to what I’ve seen in a few other European capitals; it looked so sterile. I moved on to the Almudena Cathedral and Crypt in the same area as the Palace. Entry was the modest price of 1 euro. This cathedral is “brand new” compared to many other European cathedrals. Construction started in the late 19th century, and Pope John Paul II consecrated it in the 1990s. The Cathedral and Crypt were impressive.

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Historic Madrid was in walking distance of the Cathedral near Opera and La Latina Metro stations. Now that’s the kind of area I love to explore: a maze of narrow streets lined with tapas restaurants and shops, and tucked-away gardens and parks.

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Speaking of tapas…Madrid cuisine is all about el jamon (the ham) and small dishes. I went to Mercado San Miguel, a fresh food market in historic Madrid.  Being there was a kind of exotic experience, especially compared to the get-in and get-out convenience of many American supermarkets — stocked with mostly boxed, canned, and frozen foods. Ever practical, I was also at the market to match food to the Spanish name, so I would know what to eat or avoid, according to my blood type diet.  For example, el pulpo (octopus) is on my avoid list, and not just because of its looks (not shown here). But, do see el rape (monkfish), shown below — it’s ugly, bless its little heart, but, when cooked, it’s great to eat Mediterranean style.

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They do siesta in Madrid, but I only had two full days in the city and didn’t want to take time to nap.  I fought through jet lag and was determined to get into the Spanish rhythm of late night dinners. Madrilenos don’t even think about dinner before 9 p.m. If you see anyone eating before then, they’re probably American or British. After dinner, I finally went back to the hotel to rest up for the next day’s main event.

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Day Two was the Madrid Open. I’d read in Tennis magazine that the Madrid Open is one of the best second-tier tournaments — after the Grand Slam events — because of its intimate venue and the top players in the tournament draw. It is also one of the clay court events leading up to the French Open. The show court is in La Caja Magica (Magic Cube) — a stadium with a trippy design and great seats all-around.   I had already nailed down my travel dates and airfare when I found out the tournament would be held while I was in Madrid. I was thrilled…so, I bought my ticket on-line to the quarterfinals. Rafael Nadal, Tomas Berdych, and Maria Sharapova were the stars I saw play; but, didn’t see Serena because she had pulled out of the quarters.

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The only negative at La Caja Magica was that there were no good options for real food. Vendors offered pizza, hotdogs, and ice cream, and the like. As culinarily-inclined as Spain is, the organizers could have done better than that. The one place I did get something to eat — and it couldn’t possibly count as a meal — was a gluten-free bakery called Celicioso. Well, Celicioso was “delicioso”…for real.  Though sugar is not my friend, I bought the bakery’s tennis ball cupcake to celebrate my birthday, and thoroughly enjoyed it!

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But, one cannot live on gluten-free cupcakes alone. When I heard Serena was out of the tournament, I left La Caja Magica. At that point, I was desperate for some real food. I went back to La Latina and found a pinxto bar called Lamiak. Pinxto is the Catalonian name for a type of tapas, and bread is usually part of it. I told the chef I’m gluten-free, and he graciously offered to de-construct all the pinxtos I ordered. My food arrived as a gourmet presentation minus the bread. It was so delicious and beautiful that I ordered a second round.

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A “de-constructed” pintxo: tomato, goat cheese, and carmelized onion; and guacamole with smoked cod.

Still jet lagged, I didn’t slow down at all! In Madrid, I hung with the locals; ate a late dinner around 10:30 p.m., drank wine, and stayed out in the streets until the wee hours. But, after two days there, I needed the yoga retreat.

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Next: Balancing Travel – Part 3 – Albir


They Call Me A Picky Eater, But …

I’m really a Mindful Eater.

My friends respect my diet choices, even if they think they’re a little quirky. They know I’ve changed my diet for the sake of better health. When I’m invited to dinner, the hosts ask what are my “restrictions.” My  mama taught us to eat anything our host offers, but… quite honestly, the situation requires some finesse. I always ask my hosts not to go out of their way to accommodate me. I contribute a dish or two, if that’s appropriate, and try to downplay my food preferences. (I’ll survive a meal with non-organic greens!)

That said, I do pay attention to what I put in my body.  Not every food I’ve loved has loved me back, and my body has let me know in some noxious ways.  If I’m lucky, I will only get bloated.

So be it — call me “picky.”

When my friends and I go out, I suggest restaurants I think will work for everyone. And, if someone else makes a suggestion, I take a quick look at the menu to see if there is at least one thing I can eat. Food brings people together and I don’t want my food preferences to make me a social repellent. I do draw the line, however, at most fast food places.

Here’s how I maintain my food “quirks” and social life. When my Maryland USTA tennis team was in Newport News, Virginia for a tournament, some teammates wanted to hit a deli for lunch. Well, the typical deli doesn’t work for me because I’m gluten-free and don’t eat processed meats. I suggested Taste, which is in both Newport News and Norfolk.  (I’d gone there with other teammates last year and remembered it as a healthier type of deli. The good folk at Taste label the gluten-free food and you can customize your salad order.) This time around, I ordered an arugula and spinach salad with sliced almonds, hard-boiled egg, goat cheese, cucumber, and onion, topped with a generous scoop of blackened tuna salad. It was huge and good and had plenty of protein.  My teammates happily ordered what they wanted and we all shared a bottle of Bitch red wine.

See…not really so picky after all!  Everybody was happy and ready to kick butt in the next match!

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Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: Changing the Diet

A plan empowers. Mine was to immediately change my diet by cutting out sugar. Cancer cells feed on it. I had gained weight over a 10 year period, and found myself trying to lose first, 15 pounds…then 20 pounds…then 30 pounds. By cutting sugar, I actually lost seven pounds in two weeks. Weight loss was an unexpected bonus.

I had the lumpectomy in March, and a “re-do” surgery a month later so the surgeon could improve the margin between clean and cancerous tissue. I made a 100% shift to the blood type diet after the first surgery and lost another 18 pounds in nine weeks. My plan was to fortify my body for chemo.

The pounds continued to melt away at the healthy rate of two pounds per week. My facial bone structure was defined again for the first time in years.  I no longer saw rolling haunches reflected in windows I walked past. My energy and attitude were great.

Quitting wheat was probably key to the second wave of weight loss. According to Eat Right 4 Your Type, wheat inhibits the metabolism.  My weight loss skidded to a stop right at my pre-gain weight of 135. Quitting wheat was like pushing a metabolism re-set button.

Aside from pounds lost, this is what else I noticed: My stomach didn’t cramp after eating. I didn’t burp, fart, or bloat, which had been fairly chronic before the diet. I didn’t have dandruff or an itchy scalp, or achy finger joints and knees. I was also less moody. I’ll  be candid…yeast infections were also now in the past. The best part, though, was my improved mental clarity.

While my doctors worked their plan to get rid of the disease, I worked my plan to get healthier.  All my life, I had compulsively eaten sweets and baked goods until I either felt sick or crashed. Usually, a bag of cookies never made it into the house. By the time I got home from the store, I was putting an empty bag in the trash. And let’s not even talk about Girl Scout cookies, especially Thin Mints. I could kill a box in 10 minutes; then, I would feel ill. Giving up the sweets and pastries was critical…so I just did it.

I’ve been a big eater and a foodie for years. But, I began to eat differently — even eating foods I had refused to eat before, like beets and almonds. I’ll even eat  walnuts, as long as they are absolutely pulverized.  (I don’t like how they look or smell.)  My weight has been easy to maintain. Believe me, I can clean a plate! I care about what goes into my body, and I don’t count calories.

I became a mindful eater.

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