“The Tuscan Sun” has become cliché, both in media and in online pictures. I only understood the fascination it generates when I discovered a fresh dimension of the Tuscan landscape while visiting Chianti last summer. The region is known for its vast vineyards covering the hills near the city of Siena.
The road leading to Chianti passes through the coastal area, where olive trees and vineyards alternate as far as the eyes can see. Afterward, the road only travels among hills. They are covered in miles and miles of vineyards, such as I have never seen anywhere in Europe. In the center of every vineyard stands a small castle. They’re farms, but the architecture of the area is singular and every dwelling (including these farms) looks like a medieval fortress.
Castellina in Chianti a small town, with only 2800 inhabitants, dating back in the Etruscan ages. Like every other small town in the area, it is built around a fortress, with narrow streets and stone walls. It stands atop a hill and it’s surrounded by vineyards. The local Castellina vineyard offers tourists the possibility of a wine tasting experience in their cellars, which date back in the 15th century. The wine’s flavor is unexpected. It was a very warm summer day when I got there and I tried a glass of rose. I expected the fruity flavor which I had encountered in France and which is common to several European rose wines. But the Chianti wine is different. It’s heavy, with a persistent flavor. It’s unctuous. Afterward, I tried several types of wine, both white and red. They all have the same distinctive note, but at the same time they are very different. They resemble oriental perfumes, as they are very persistent and somewhat heavy. They are unique.
When I left Chianti, the sun was setting, and it that pink light, every leaf, twig, and grape took on a magical cloak. In that sunlight, I understood that there are places in the world that have a certain something which makes them one of a kind. In Chianti, the pink light of the sunset is trapped inside the very flavor of the grapes.
I learned how to bake from several sources, from my mother, grandmothers, and aunts, but also from the foodie magazines I am so passionate about. But I can honestly say baking became my passion when I discovered French cuisine. I was always fascinated by difficult recipes, and the complex and strict stages one had to follow in French bakery proved to be exactly what I was searching for.
During the two months of COVID lock down, I had enough time to test many complex baking recipes. I started with some traditional Saxon cakes (Heinklich and Rhubarb Meringue Pie), moved on to cakes filled with all sorts of creams (invented a banana cream cake recipe which my daughter fell in love with), tried my hand at mini Pavlovas (and succeeded), and finally gathered my courage for the French ultimate cake, the madeleine. My daughter was the one to ask for this, as she had eaten the cake before, and I am sure that, without the two months prep time, I wouldn’t have dared to try the recipe.
The French sponge cake cookie became famous thanks to a novelist, Marcel Proust. As I am a literary geek (I used to teach lit and I still write literary criticism), I found out about the madeleine when I read À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), a novel written in the early years of the 20th century, in which the author practically invented remembrance as a narrative technique. And he did that with the help of a madeleine. The story is that, while walking in Paris, the narrator smells freshly baked madeleines, and the delicate, lemony and buttery smell takes him back to his childhood, to his aunt’s house, who used to bake him madeleines every time he visited her. And that’s the starting point for the entire narrative of the first volume of the book. So no wonder that madeleines fascinated me. I never got the chance to taste them in my travels to France, but I knew the cake from bakeries back home. And as I have lots of respect for original, traditional recipes, I tried to find the most authentic version, namely the one in Larousse Gastronomique, in which the flavor of the madeleines is that of butter (with just a hint of lemon).
The recipe differs from what I was expecting. I always thought it was very close to muffin batter, given the madeleines I had eaten before. Turns out it’s different. The most important ingredient is butter, which is used in large quantities, alongside flour, sugar, egg yolks, whole eggs, and lemon juice. The melted butter is both meant to tie together and to air up the batter, giving it that indescribable air quality. In the oven, the batter doesn’t rise as you would expect with muffins, and it takes a quick time for the madeleines to cook. If they remain in the oven for too long, they will become dry. The utility of the special trays is revealed the moment you remove the madeleines from the tray, as the shell shape makes the process much easier.
With their exquisite buttery taste and a hint of lemon, with a texture so airy that it simply melts in your mouth, madeleines are perfect when served alongside a cup of coffee or tea. They will grant you a moment’s relaxation during the afternoon or a fancy breakfast which will take you and your taste buds straight to Paris.
The memory of the sound of the sea and the feeling of sand on your skin can be a good place to escape the frustration of four walls and closed horizons. During the lock down days, I often caught myself daydreaming about places I had seen, with images flashing through my mind at weird times, when my brain relaxed or different places popping up in my dreams.
Here are my 6 beaches to dream of, remember fondly, and hope to get to see once more
1. Vama Veche, Romania
There’s nothing spectacular about this small beach, aside from its non-stop party vibe. It belongs to a Romanian village that borders Bulgaria and it has been a gathering spot for bohemians and hippies even during the communist regime. Nowadays, the village itself is suffocated by new buildings which host an array of bed and breakfasts or large gardens housing camping grounds. There are plenty of restaurants, but few can preserve authentic seaside dishes or a typical atmosphere. What you get, instead, is a mixture of authentic bohemian and hipster trends, where, eventually, almost everybody can fit in.
2. Sfântu Gheorghe Beach, Danube Delta, Romania
Sfântu Gheorghe is a village resting on the exact spot where the Danube flows into the Black Sea. Originally a fishing village, today it has become a tourist spot, with most of the locals working in the tourist industry. The Danube Delta hotels manage to offer luxury, but at the same time, they preserve the authentic feeling of the place, with houses painted in white and covered with reed. The beach is large, wild, and empty. The Danube flowing into the sea makes a constant rumble, and strong winds blow ceaselessly. The sand is mixed with seashells and the waves crash on the beach, sometimes bringing large pieces of driftwood ashore.
3. Elafonissi Beach, Crete, Greece
This has got to be one of the most spectacular beaches in the world. Featured in countless tops of European beaches, Elafonissi lies on a stretch of land on the southeast side of the island of Crete, pointing directly to Africa. The turquoise waters of the Libyan sea meet the pink sands of the beach in an amazing splash of color. The pink color comes from the corals living in the sea. The beach is almost wild, with a few umbrellas and sunbeds, and lots of tourists choose to lay in the shallow caves under the rocks. Long stretches of sand zigzag the beach and alternate with waters so shallow, that one can walk for miles in ankle-deep water. In the baking sun, the water turns as hot as a bathtub. The most amazing thing at Elafonissi beach is the high dune, which houses an entire ecosystem of rare plants and is a natural reservation. The sand on the dune is so white, that the sunlight almost reflects from it. With its colors changing from pink and white sand to hues of blue and turquoise waters and the green of the olive trees, Elafonissi is a unique beach.
4. Ravdoucha Beach, Crete, Greece
A hidden gem of Crete, Ravdoucha is very little known. It’s not an ordinary Cretan beach, with pebbles instead of sand and a huge rock overlooking the sea. It’s wild, as it offers no sunbeds or umbrellas, but one can shelter under the half cave walls near the water. The road to Ravdoucha climbs down through an olive plantation, and, as is follows the lines of the hills, is very steep, even for Cretan standards. Only one restaurant lies on the beach, but it offers the most incredible fresh seafood (the customers can pick their favorite catch of the day from the restaurant’s kitchen). Ancient trees border the beach, and one can lounge under the trees in hammocks and listen to the sound of the waves. The rock on the beach is home to goats, which climb down, looking for fresh leaves to eat. The water is shallow, and waves crash into small stone ponds which open up on the shore.
5. Suluban Beach, Bali, Indonesia
Suluban beach lies on the bottom of a half cave on the edge of the Indian Ocean in Bali. It’s popular among surfers, who start at the beach and then ride the high waves of the ocean. At high tide, the beach is submerged in water. But come low tide, the water retracts and uncovers a circular beach with soft, dough-like sand and smaller caves all around, where the waves crash and foam in a constant swirl. Over the beach, on the huge rock guarding it, there are countless cafes which offer a breathtaking view of the ocean. To get to the beach, one has to climb down a few flights of steep stairs, but the view at the end is worth all the dizziness, because the rough stone, soft sand, and foamy white water are tough to beat. At times, Balinese macaques come to eat at the beach, climbing down ropes or stones. They are fed by locals and tourists alike, as the locals leave offerings especially for the animals on the island.
6. Jimbaran Beach, Bali, Indonesia
Jimbaran beach is probably one of the best known and most popular beaches in Bali. Actually, in its days of glory before the pandemic, tour buses brought tourists to Jimbaran beach for one hour, so that they could witness what is said to be one of the most magnificent sunsets in the world. The beach is wide, with soft grayish sand and the water is usually still. Several warungs (restaurants) lie on the beach, with tables stretching to the edge of the water. The seafood is fresh, courtesy of the local fish market. However, the most spectacular effect is the fact that, at low tide, as the ocean retreats, water lags on the beach. Sand crabs dig their little tunnels and come outside for air and, for a few hours, the beach turns to a giant mirror. Walking on it feels like walking in the sky. When the sun sets, the entire scenery turns to pink, golden, and purple hues, and it feels like the skies open up to the world. It is truly a golden hour of light, as colors bathe every surrounding object or being.
Romanian every-day cooking is the result of the country’s history. The cuisine is influenced by all the neighboring nations, or by those which mostly interacted with Romania. How external influence is reflected in cooking habits mostly depends on the historical region, but, due to today’s circulation, every dish can be found anywhere in the country.
Local cuisine in Transylvania is a mixture of influences and reinterpretations, with many Hungarian and Saxon dishes, but also with some Turkish and Slavic elements, which are so strong in the local cuisine, that they are universally spread all over the country. All dishes benefit from this mixture of influences, so, naturally, soup does too, as it is a constant and representative element of local cuisine. But Romanian soup is not what one would expect. It’s a combination of soup and stew, a hearty dish which many people find necessary to feel full after a meal. It’s usually very consistent and thick, making use of all kinds of ingredients. These are some representative kinds:
Chicken or beef dumpling soup
A flavored broth made with meat, vegetables and completed by grits and eggs dumplings, this soup is of Hungarian influence. However, while in Hungary (and in the northern part of Transylvania) it is consumed with the boiled meat, in other parts of the country the meat is used for other dishes. The flavor is the result of using both bones and meat for the boil, and of adding lots of carrots, parsley roots, celery roots, onions, and small quantities of garlic and horseradish. The dumplings are made with foamed egg whites, yolks, and grits, which are added to the mixture until it becomes thick. They must be firm, but soft after boiling. The dish is completed by added freshly chopped parsley leaves right before eating.
Smoked leg of porkand white beans soup
This soup is mostly a Transylvanian dish. Transylvanian soups are very thick, stew-like and made with lots of ingredients. In this case, the meat used is a Saxon product, a smoked and dried pork leg, cut into chunks and boiled together with vegetables. White beans are added to the soup, which is one of the „red soups”, meaning that it must be finished with tomato juice (any self-respecting cook will only use homemade, salty tomato juice). The beans soup is served in loaves of homemade bread, called „pita”. The soft middle is cut out of the bread, so it becomes a bowl into which the soup is poured. This soup is also very well paired with fresh red onions, which have a sweet and spicy taste.
Minced meat dumpling and vegetable soup
Eaten all over the country, this soup is somewhat similar to the beans soup. However, as the dumplings are made from minced pork and beef meat, which is not smoked, the soup is somewhat lighter than the beans soup. Also, it has no beans, and it is not as thick as the one above. The dumplings are made using meat, breadcrumbs, chopped onions, and chopped herbs, such as parsley. The particular taste of the dish is the result of souring it with borscht or with sauerkraut water (borscht is mostly used in Moldova and sauerkraut water in Transylvania).
The origin of this dish is in Southern Romania, the old province of Vallachia. However, in time, all the regions adopted it and reinterpreted it according to local taste. Many types of greens can be used, from salad to wild nettle or red orach. Salad is mostly used in Transylvania, the resulting dish being a thick soup. Chunks of omelet and optional fried pork fat and rind are added to thicken the broth, which is completed with milk and flavored with crushed garlic. It becomes something more like a stew, an entire meal in itself. The other greens soups are lighter because no pork fat is used in any of them. However, eggs are essential, as they add body to the otherwise thin liquid. Raw egg whites and yolks are mixed as for omelet, but instead of frying them, they are added to the boiling water, resulting in threads or bigger chunks called „zdrențe” (rags En.).
This is probably the best-known Romanian soup. It is a Turkish dish, which Romanian cuisine discovered during the Middle Ages and adapted. Nowadays, there are certain local restaurants (usually not featured online) which specialize in making tripe soup. Touristy places serve a mild version, something in which the taste is mild and the texture watery. Tripe soup is difficult to make, for it requires a long time to cook. It starts as a beef soup (bones and spine marrow are mandatory). After the soup is cooked, thin boiled beef tripe strips are added and boiled some more, for the flavor to sink in. The flavor is completed by pickled peppers, garlic sauce, fried carrot oil, vinegar, and sour cream. It is best served with a loaf of freshly baked bread and pickled or fresh chilies. Romanians say that a bowl of tripe soup is the best possible cure for a hangover.
My relationship with coffee is complicated. The only coffee which I really enjoy is the one brewed in Turkish fashion, with the powder boiled in a pot of water. It’s not strong and it’s mildly flavored. And, although I admire the craftsmanship of the Italian espresso, it’s never been my thing.
There is a lot of debate regarding the ethics behind the process of obtaining this type of coffee. Also, there is a lot of debate about how good this coffee actually is. I was interested in it because of its story and, of course, because I’m curious.
A few years ago, just one specialty coffee shop in my Transylvanian home town sold the Kopi Luwak coffee, and it was easily the most expensive item on their menu. Actually, it was so expensive that they stopped bringing it after a short time, for they had no buyers. Kopi Luwak is one of the rarest coffee types because it involves a “special” process. The coffee beans, covered in the fleshy fruit, are eaten by a civet (a cat-like animal native to South-Eastern Asia). The coffee beans pass through the animal’s digestive tract intact and can be found afterward in its droppings. From there, they are washed, disinfected and then roasted and prepared like any other coffee beans. The resulting coffee has a very rich and special flavor, hence the high price and rarity of the product. “Kopi” is the Indonesian word for coffee, while “Luwak” designates the civet.
Bali was a Dutch colony for many centuries, because of its tropical climate, fertile land, and, of course, because of its spices and cocoa trees. But coffee was introduced to Bali by traders from Lombok, who brought the Robusta and Arabica beans to the island. The rich, volcanic soil in the northern part proved to be hospitable for the plants, thus Balinese people started growing coffee, under the Dutch strict rules. So strict were the rules, legend has it, that the locals were forbidden from consuming coffee. So they discovered that the civets in the jungle ate the fruit and eliminated the seeds, which then people used in order to brew coffee. Hence, Kopi Luwak.
Kopi Luwak can be found everywhere in Bali today. I chose to visit a small coffee, cocoa, and spice plantation. It was mostly a place for tourists, where Europeans (such as myself) were shown how different fruit and spices grew in nature. And I’m sorry for my ignorance, but I stared at the cinnamon tree, at the pineapple plant, at the tall coffee trees (back home I only saw them in pots and greenhouses), and at the ginger plants. I’ve read several online reviews of coffee plantations where travelers were unhappy that the places were too touristy. But trust me, when you come from -15 Celsius degrees and stare at the banana bunch hanging from the tree at 31 Celsius degrees, you won’t find a reason to complain.
At the plantation, we also got to see the little civet. Again, there is a heated debate about the ethics of catching civets. Local farmers swear that they treat them well and give them plenty of space. They also say that they release them into the wild after short periods. Authorities say otherwise. Coffee specialists say that the coffee resulting from caged civets tastes worse. I had never seen civets before. They were all asleep, as they are nocturnal animals. They seemed well fed and calm to me, but I don’t know anything about them. I also noticed their deep, musky smell, which I later found out is used in the perfume industry.
The tasting was impressive. We had 13 types of tea, coffee, and cocoa. The coffee was prepared in the Bali traditional way, by boiling the powder in water. My friends, who usually enjoy strong coffees, proclaimed it too light for their taste. I liked it. I especially enjoyed the avocado coffee, which was unbelievably creamy (with no added cream), the vanilla coffee, which had a rich vanilla taste. The teas were mostly infusions from plants and fruit. Lemongrass tea and mangosteen tea were spectacular, with strong flavors. The hot cocoa was creamy and rich in flavor and exhibited the taste of real chocolate.
We bought Kopi Luwak separately from the tasting, as it was not included. It was surprising, for I expected a richer flavor. The taste was somehow acid and earthy, very different from any other coffee which I had ever tasted. It lingered on your taste buds long after drinking it. I understand why a seasoned coffee drinker might say it doesn’t taste good. To me, it was good, but not necessarily something for which I would pay a lot of money.
Online debate aside, the coffee plantations in Bali are a worthwhile experience. I got to see the plants and to understand where my beloved cinnamon and ginger come from. I got to see (and smell) the civets. And I got to drink my I-don’t-know-how-many cups of coffee and on a terrace overlooking the jungle, at 30 Celsius degrees, in January.
I’ve never been a big fan of fruit. I eat them when I remember and I am very particular in my tastes, and I never eat a lot. Mostly, I consume fruit because I know it’s good for me. But I could easily live without it.
However, on a tropical island like Bali, the fruit is a must, whether you want it or not. From the breakfasts which always start with fruit platters and juices, to the fruit markets and the vendors outside the temples, from the street vendors in every single village to the enormous palm trees laden with coconut, everything invites you to eat fruit. It’s also very hot, so I felt the need for something more watery in my meals.
Breakfasts always started with a platter of fruit. We usually had watermelon, honeydew, papaya, pineapple and an assortment of freshly squeezed juices, using the fruit above or avocado. There was a certain difference from what I knew about these fruit from back home (where they were some kind of fresh, but not just-plucked-from-the-tree fresh), but nothing notable. I concluded that I still wasn’t impressed by papaya, even if it was local, and I still preferred watermelon. Pineapple in Bali was small and kind of dry (I suppose it also depends on the season). Aside from breakfast, the rooms in the villas we rented all offered fruit baskets containing bunches of small bananas, snake fruit, and oranges. I tried the bananas and found them to be the real deal. They were sweet and extremely fragrant, like nothing I ever tasted before. At first, I had no idea how to open and eat the snake fruit, but, thanks to Google, I got the hang of it.
We visited the fruit market in Ubud on the second day of our stay there, at 6.30 A.M. It was packed with vendors and customers and easy to get lost in. Most buyers were local women, who were preparing for the day ahead. In Bali, traditional cooking takes up a lot of time and it starts very early in the morning. Most of them were buying lemongrass (which I tasted and liked in almost every type of food in Bali and which is sold in huge bunches), green bananas, snap peas, and greens. And, while I am on the subject of the people in the market, I need to take a moment and describe something.
I am a freelancer and have been so for over a year. One of the reasons I wanted to visit Bali is because it’s one of the hottest freelance hubs on the planet and I was incredibly curious about it. It’s debatable whether this is a good or a bad thing in the long run. The bottom line, the island is a wonderful mixture of old and new and a place where the traditional and exotic way of living becomes more accessible and easier to understand for a foreigner. In the Ubud fruit market, at 7 a.m., I saw an image which perfectly describes the strange mixture which is Bali: a Caucasian girl, dressed in a black lace long, hippie dress, bargaining with Balinese fruit vendors among baskets of bananas, mangoes, and bunches of lemongrass. It was a fleeting image, I only saw it for one second, but I remember it so well because it struck me how beautiful and symbolical it was. To me, it stands for the essence of wanderlust.
Back to the fruit. I bought mango, bananas, snake fruit, mangosteen, dragon fruit, and passionfruit. And I also bought lots of flowers. What impressed me, as I was getting out of the market, were the tiny, elderly ladies who carried groceries on their heads and stopped to ask me, with smiling, happy faces: „Flowers?” It’s a mark of the Balinese spirit how welcoming and nice they are, without wanting anything in return. At the villa, I googled the fruit and learned how to eat them, in something like a tropical feast. The mango is incredible and it gave me the feeling that I never knew the real taste. The mangosteen, with its soft texture (similar to that of the lychees) and its fragrant taste, was my favorite. The snake fruit had a scale-like skin and, on the inside, it resembled garlic, with its compartments. Each compartment held a seed, covered in the white flesh. It was drier than mangosteen and left an acid, astringent feeling. The taste was sour-ish and somewhat sweet, but it lacked the explosive fragrance of the mangosteen. Dragon fruit looked incredible, both on the outside and on the inside. We had the pink kind. On the outside, it had pink and green skin, with small, soft spikes. On the inside, it was flamboyantly pink, with black seeds which contrasted beautifully. But, after this spectacular look, the taste was disappointing. It was bland, almost flavorless, not very different from eating beetroot. Passion fruit, which resembled a bigger plum, puzzled me the most until I got to taste its flavored, jelly-like, green and delicious flesh.
I bought jackfruit as we were leaving Pura Tirtha Empul Temple. As the fruit is gigantic and hard to open, we were glad to find it in small containers, ready to eat. It has large chunks of yellowish, stringy flesh surrounding a large black seed. The flesh has long fibers and is somewhat sour, somewhat sweet and astringent. It’s drier than other fruit and the flavor is mild. Because of the fiber, the texture is kind of chewy. I bought green coconuts on the beach, in Jimbaran, and Kuta. I love coconut water and its subtle flavor and to drink it right out the fresh coconut was great. But in Bali, during the rainy season, coconuts are so large and so full of water, that I was unable to finish one. I also liked the mushy young coconut flesh, with its soft taste and oily texture. It was something I had never tasted before.
I left the best for last. Before leaving for Bali, I found out about durian. There are entire online blogs dedicated to what is called „the king of fruit”. I also knew that it smells awful and that many people cannot stomach it, because of the smell. I also knew that it tastes different, depending on the person. So I was intrigued, to say the least. I smelled it after arriving on the island and I must say that it is truly something unique. Banned in airplanes and hotels, durian smells like rotting onions and garlic. The odor is horrific. It grows on huge trees, like jackfruit, and it is covered in hard spikes. Animals enjoy it and monkeys can open it and scoop out the flesh. I was very happy to find it in a supermarket, packaged and ready to eat. From all the fruit I had in Bali, durian was the most expensive (all the other fruit were extremely cheap, but the ready-to-eat durian cost about 25$/kilo).
We took the fruit outside and opened the container. The smell was very strong and the first sight of the fruit’s texture didn’t do it any good. It looked like rotten cheese (yellow, not blue) and it smelled like 3-days old garbage. We must have been very curious to try and eat it. One of my friends couldn’t get past the initial taste, no matter how hard he tried. At first, durian tastes as it smells, so it kind of feels like eating, well…garbage. But after a few seconds, something happens. The taste of onion changes into something unique, like buttered mango, like a soft and sweet pudding that is so flavored that you can’t stop eating. My husband told me that to him, durian didn’t taste like mango, but like something resembling a pineapple. My daughter didn’t like it and, to my other friend, it was neutral. The most amazing thing, however, it how much the taste persisted on my lips, no matter what I ate afterward. Up until the evening, I could taste the sweet flavor. To my horror, in the evening there was half an hour when I only tasted the initial onions and garlic, but it subsided pretty quick. I was left with the pleasant memory of the mango flavor.
Although I am not a fan of fruit, I’m certain that if I were to live in Bali or somewhere close to the Equator or the tropics, I would become one. And I probably would have a healthier lifestyle.
A few years ago, before Netflix, HBO Go and all the other streaming services, before I started writing about food, I used to watch Andrew Zimmern’s show about strange types of food. And while there are still many things I would never eat, I can honestly say that I dreamt of seeing an exotic market for many years.
I arrived in Bali eager to smell and taste all the exotic fruit the rainy season of the island had to offer. Naturally, I was fascinated by jackfruit and especially durian, for these were the types of fruit I had never experienced before. I had watched all kinds of YouTube videos about durian, but I still had no idea what to expect. I experienced the smell on the very first evening after arriving, when I was still getting used to the humidity and the heat. I entered a supermarket to buy water and there it was, a spiked, green, medium-sized fruit, which oozed a rotten smell, which was so strong it was hard for me to stand near it.
The next day, I saw the huge durian tree growing just outside the terrace where I had breakfast. The terrace looked upon the jungle, which dropped several tens of meters below it, and the durian tree, full of ripe fruit, grew tall above us. From the distance, the smell of the fruit was thankfully enclosed in the hard, spiked shell. I visited the Ubud art market that day, ready for its Asian feel, for the explosion of color and sound, for the sheer overwhelming volume of artifacts, for the crumbling walls of the grey concrete buildings and, of course, for the never-ending negotiations. I think the feeling of an Asian tourist market is something everyone should experience, at least once. It’s unnerving and exhilarating at the same time.
But the art market in Ubud is not what I want to write about. The sarongs, the statues, the beaded accessories, the incense smells, all appealed to the bookworm in me. But I knew that the market had another face, one that was not dedicated to tourists. The „real” market, as I felt it, took place in the same spot, in a sort of square with winding roads and stairs, just outside the ancient royal palace of Ubud. The vegetable and flower vendors came in the morning, from 6 A.M to 8 A.M. A modest entrance hid the vastness of the market, which sprawled along several streets and ended in a square dent, from which you could only go up the stairs. In the art market, the vendors had shops with tables placed outside to attract customers. In the fruit and flower market, the merchandise was placed in baskets on the ground, on large sheets of plastic. There were so many vendors and customers, such a swirl of smells, sounds, and colors that it could make you dizzy just by walking among them.
I never was a morning person, but thanks to the jetlag and the proximity of the jungle, in Ubud I woke up easily at 5 A.M, before sunrise. The jungle sunrise is one of the most spectacular things I have ever experienced because you can hear every living creature waking up and somehow saying „hi” to the sun. No sunrise I have ever seen (including the forest ones, which I love, or the sun rising from the sea) beats that.
At 6.30 A.M I was in the fruit and flower market. I keep calling it a flower market because I have never seen anything like it. The Balinese have ritual offerings (blog post about them here http://corinagruberstory.blogspot.com/2020/01/bali-peace-offerings.html) and, in addition to selling the actual offerings, women also sell flowers, which represent an important source of income for the locals on the island. Stemming from the words of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, flowers are regarded as suitable offerings to gods in Balinese culture. Also, they represent beauty, fragrance, and spirituality. Apart from the canang sari, flowers are used to adorn religious statues and temples (which exist in every household). More recently, because of the proliferation of spas, flowers are used for flower baths or for filling entire pools. In the market, flowers are sold in heaps, by the kilo. A Balinese family uses about half a kilo of petals a week for the canang sari. It’s hard to describe the image of the mountains of flowers and petals. According to Hindu tradition, most flowers used are red, white, magenta, yellow, and orange. Each color represents a different god and has a different symbolism. This symbolism runs so deep, that it connects not only the color to the god and a general meaning, but to cardinal points, human organs, forms of landscape, and general philosophical principles.
Frankly, it’s difficult for me, having lived in Western society for my entire life (although my country is East- European) to wrap my head around all the meanings of flowers, smells or fruit in Balinese culture. The market was an overwhelming experience, but not in a negative sense. It’s just so much to look at and to experience. And you can choose to do as I did while there, simply look and register the unbelievable calmness of it all, or you can choose to try and understand some 3000 years of spirituality (at which point you’ll probably feel your head explode, as I do now).
So, back to the flowers… I think I circled the market for about half an hour, trying not to stare as if coming from another world. I wanted to capture everything, from the look of the flowers in huge baskets, hid in semi-darkness, to the serene faces of women weaving baskets for canang sari right there in the market. Don’t get me wrong: the smell of flowers was drowned by the strong scents of mixed fruit and vegetables. But they still captured the eye. In the end, I bought a kilo of bougainvillea mixed colored flowers and half a kilo of marigold. And I used them to fill the bathtub.
While I am still on the subject of Balinese flowers, there are two others, which are very powerful symbols, not sold in the market. One is frangipani, one of the most complex flowers I have ever seen, and the other is the red hibiscus flower. Frangipani is white, yellow or pink and it grows on trees, in bunches. The flowers have a sweet, deep, and intoxicating scent and a soft, rubbery texture. They are not plucked, but fall from the trees and people pick them up, use them in prayer and worship, and wear them behind their ear (both men and women – I even saw a security guard, in uniform, wearing one). They represent purity and goodness. Red hibiscus blooms in large flowers in Bali, and it symbolizes power.
I set out to write a blog post about the Ubud market and wound up writing about flowers. After all, it figures…they were the first thing I saw as I entered the market: huge, colorful, soft mountains of petals. I’ll write another post about the fruit in the market and about how I tried durian.
I started this blog long before becoming a parent because I wanted an outlet for my traveling experiences and because I wanted a place to write. After I had my daughter, I promised myself that I would not turn it into a parenting blog. I wrote according to my previous interests, such as traveling, literature, music, and food. I care for my daughter dearly and I have her best interest at heart, but I consider my experiences with her to be private, so I never wanted to write about them. This post will be an exception.
When I became pregnant, I was repeatedly told that my „traveling habits” will have to change, aka that I won’t be able to do it anymore. It hurt me deeply, mostly because it came from other parents who had not taken their kids outside the borders of the country. It hurt me because I believed them and I thought that my traveling days were over. When my daughter was 9 months old, we decided to take her to the seaside, without leaving the country. There is a national obsession with children getting sick at the seaside (partly justified, because many restaurants still lack basic hygiene). We went, and nothing happened. We went 2 years after that, and still, my child didn’t get sick. We took her out of the country (by car) at three and she first flew before her fourth birthday. She flies a couple of times a year, loves planes and hotels, is a good sleeper and seldom is sick. And, also, we can reason with her, no matter how tired she is.
Neither I or my husband had flown more than 3 hours previous to the flight to Bali. So, naturally, I was a little worried. A year before, a friend of mine, who has 2 kids younger than my daughter flew to the Maldives and posted about how easy the flight had been. That gave me courage. But still, the prospect of a 13-hour flight seemed a bit daunting. Also, some recent analysis revealed that I have some digestive problems (new-discovered lactose intolerance), so traveling to Asia became even more problematic. We (together with our friends – I don’t think that I would have dared to do this just with my family) chose to fly with Turkish airlines because we thought the short periods between the two flights would be an advantage.
So we drove to the airport (4 hours away), parked the car and waited for the plane. We boarded, the plane toured the runway for a couple of times (my daughter was already watching cartoons) and then we were told that we had to leave the plane, due to „technical problems” (we later found out that one of the two engines had failed to start). We waited in the airport for 4 hours, in the night, in a never-ending line. Finally, we solved the problem by phone, delayed our departure and arrival by two days and got a hotel room, because my kid couldn’t sleep very well in the airport chairs. Two days later, we went to the airport, boarded the plane with a one-hour delay and, just before take-off, we realized that there was a very slim chance to catch the Denpasar connecting flight from Istanbul. I wanted to get off the plane and return home, but all I could think about were the promised jungle, temples, and ocean of Bali. When we arrived in Istanbul, the Denpasar plane was supposed to have departed. Anyway, after a ten-minute crazy run through Europe’s newest and largest airport (at 2 a.m), we finally boarded the Bali plane. Out of the five people on the trip, only my daughter still believed that we could get there.
We flew for 11 hours to Denpasar and for 12 hours and a half on the way back. I slept for 8 hours on the first flight and 9 hours on the second. My daughter slept more. As she could stretch over the parent sitting next to her, it was comfortable for her. I can’t say that it was the best sleep I had, but it was not the worst. Overall, it was better than I had expected. During the 11 days we spend there neither I nor my daughter had any digestive problems. We didn’t stay in a resort, we visited everything we could and we ate local food.
So, to all the nay-Sayers and „attentive folk” who tried to warn me and tell me that I would never travel again after I have a kid, I flew to Bali for 12 hours with a 6-year old and I would do it again in a heartbeat. And I probably will, because we liked it too much.
I’ve been practicing Vipassana meditation for five years. I started it to escape my horrific anxiety and panic attacks. In 3 guided sessions, it worked like a charm. I got rid of my panic attacks and learned to control my anxiety. And more. I learned to know myself. I also tried yoga. But this post is not about my experience with meditation and yoga. It is about peace.
I have no community for my practice and I do not feel the need for one, as I am a loner. Few people are aware that I have these preoccupations. I live in a European country, one that is deeply committed to its own beliefs and rituals. And these meditative rituals are alien, no matter how much they have helped me.
So when I decided to travel to Bali, I kind of knew what I was in for. I read about the culture, the unique mix of Hindu and Buddhist spirituality. I read about the daily offerings and how one was supposed to be careful with them. I looked at pictures of the Hindu statues of gods, beings so complex and fantastical that they seemed to come alive. But no amount of reading can prepare you for the real thing.
From the first day I arrived, I felt the deep vibration of the ground of the island, like that of a magnet. I had never seen the jungle or the ocean. Back home, mountains and forests were the places that attracted me most for my spiritual wanderings. Here, it was different. There is a certain peace in the roar of the jungle in the morning and there is unknown tranquility in the sway of the ocean waves. But the highest string of tranquility Bali has to offer lies elsewhere. It lies in the offerings. Every family places several statues and shrines inside the house. Traditional gates look like portals, with perfectly straight, parallel and vertical lines separated by a gap. The statues and shrines are dedicated to the main Hindu gods. So are the offerings, which are placed three times a day, in special places, which take into account the cardinal points, the elements (light, sea, river, jungle), the colors symbolizing the main gods, and much more. Around 15 offerings are placed every day. On most days, they are mini baskets weaved from banana leaves, filled with flowers, rice, some money, and an incense stick or a fragrant cigarette. They sit on the ground or at the feet of the statues. As long as their smoke rises up to the heavens, they are holy and not to be disturbed. Afterward, the food in them is left to the lesser gods, the animals, and insects around. On holy days, the offerings become large heaps of flowers, fruit, vegetables, and food, which are taken to the temples and used in rituals. The sheer quantity of offerings is baffling. When they place them, women use certain gestures of guiding the smoke to the heavens. Three times a day, every day, with no break or holiday. With the offerings, people thank the gods for what they have. They also pray for peace. And they also express their gratitude to every living soul, no matter how small. You can see the peace of spirit in their eyes and faces. In the weeks of my stay, I never heard a raised voice or a scream. Yes, they go to temples for blessings. But their lives, which they live like this, are continuous expressions of the blessing. We think that we need a special time for meditation (people going to Bali take all kinds of classes and enter retreats). But if you manage to glimpse how the locals see the world, you understand that there is no need for that, because you can live your entire existence in constant gratitude, awe, and serenity. Of course, the nature and the weather on the island help a great deal.
I’ve come back home to my frosty mountains. Never have the fir-trees seemed so small and the landscape so void of life. I’m still practicing my meditation sessions. But now, I don’t strive to find answers in them. I strive to return to that utmost feeling of peace, to the sound of the jungle, the waves and to the sweet smell of the incense sticks.
I’m a Lego fan. Maybe that’s because when I was a child the colorful bricks were almost impossible to find in communist Romania. Maybe because today the Lego world is a flight away from my hometown. Anyway, I’ve visited Legoland in Germany more than once.
It took me some time to understand how the place is organized and what is the role of the food in Lego story. When I first visited I found no certain logic to the placement of the 15 restaurants and coffee shops. After some time, I realized that behind all the concepts, the decorum, even behind the chosen recipes was the story. Everything belongs to a concept in which the food represents a small part of a complete experience. The most interesting restaurants and coffee shops are the ones that have a distinct Lego theme. I enjoyed the Knight’s table, a restaurant right near the Castle Ice Cream coffee shop, The schnitzel Depot (which is right to the hotdog kiosk called Oasis in the Jungle) and the Asian pasta bar Ninja Kitchen (next to the wok restaurant called Asia chicken House). All the food service spaces are included within Lego-themed stories. The first two belong to the Lego Knights theme which includes the stories about knights and dragons. They are right next to the Knights’ Castle. The entire area dedicated to Lego Knights represents a combination in which every train experience and shop belongs to a medieval story of knights, princesses, wizards, and dragons. As part of the experience, visitors are offered menus which bring an added marketing value to the story. For instance, the Knights’ Table offers a “Damsel in distress salad”, “Little pieces of dragon meat” (a kids’ menu) or the “Fire Dragon” menu. Actually, the food comprises fast food dishes, with several types of hotdogs, sausages, chicken strips or burgers. The presentation, the whimsical names, and the overall effect are superior to taste or variety. But I couldn’t help admiring the complexity and the obvious success of the marketing process which packs common dishes in a shiny story layer. The other culinary spaces are exactly the same. The Asian ones belong to the Ninjago Lego theme and the Schnitzel Depot and the Jungle Oasis belong to the adventure space in Legoland.
Legoland doesn’t have the best or the healthiest food. But the low nutritional value is compensated by the fantastic journey in the world dragons, of the mysterious Ninjas or of the exotic jungle. These are all experiences where food represents a mere part and which help bring Lego toys and their stories to reality.
Published in Zile si Nopti Magazine, 30 August 2019
I first traveled abroad when I was 14. Back then it was a long and difficult process, hard to imagine today, that involved lengthy custom control and the slow procedures. All my travels abroad looked the same for many years afterward. I would have never imagined driving up the highway and only having a quick glimpse of the sign showing I’m entering another country.
After overcoming that initial fear of the unknown, I understood that with every journey something changed in my way of being. With time, laws relaxed and traveling in Europe became easier. It didn’t feel like such a big challenge anymore. But that exciting curiosity of finding something new and unknown or of returning to something familiar always made me want to travel as much as possible. Traveling opened my eyes to the world, to its complexity, diversity and its inherent beauty. It also thought me something about my inner being, about how much I can accept, about how tolerant I am, how much ego I have or how much of a giving person I can be. I’m certain that without traveling my identity would have become rigid much too soon. Traveling helps me grow and evolve constantly.
My only regret now, as I sit and watch children of all ages and nationalities running around huge Lego bricks, is that I never had the chance to travel sooner. I can only imagine how much freedom and complexity resides within the mind of a person who opens their eyes to the vastness and beautiful diversity of the world as a child.