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Tails From the Vienna Woods

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Washington DC

Eating in America. My 50.000 Calorie Week.

Off to a good start with my Do & Co meal on the inbound flight: pasta with a creamy tomato and leek sauce. My grand dining scheme for DC of favorite restaurants, though, gave way this week to the convenience of eating at places near to friend’s offices for lunch, and sometimes being the guest for dinner (grilled steaks and escalloped potatoes being my favorite–my friends know me). 
A shopping lunch early in the week with Anna Grace and one of her friends found us at Nordstrom, my favorite department store. Their cafe has always been a civilized respite from mall din. No complaints with my perennial choice of Chinese Chicken Salad, a perfectly dressed plate of an equally ideal portion. The evening followup was at another favorite local Italian restaurant that manages to thrive despite offering “endless salad and breadsticks” and concocted faux Italian dishes. So far, so good.
By Sunday the portion size and the calorie count were on the rise. I had to make a special request for a simple “handcrafted” burger (which I believe only means the burger wasn’t pre-made and frozen) with avocado at an indistinguishable microbrewery, as the 11 burger options on the menu all included so many toppings I was afraid I would not be able to taste the actual beef, or even find it beneath said toppings!  Despite my best efforts, one-quarter of the burger and half of the crispy fries came home with me.

A self-inflicted calorie wound of sorts one evening out with friends, with the selection of fish and chips at Clare and Don’s, a “beach shack” serving excellent food, and the one and only dog-friendly restaurant in my post code. It somehow seemed wrong to order pasta when fresh catch fried cod was calling to me. Fully half of my dinner found its way to my refrigerator, though.

(Side note: when the restaurant opened in 2006, young diners were invited to decorate flip-flops to adorn the walls. I was able to locate Anna Grace’s decorated shoe, but not Jack’s, though I was assured that none had been removed. Next time, I guess.)
Ah, Ted’s Montana Grill. Across the street from my former office, this was the “go-to” for special office occasions. The specialty is bison, which when prepared well is rather quite good. I fondly remember the briny pickles that are brought table side in lieu of breadsticks; thankfully my friends did not notice that I ate most of them. Unfortunately I was entirely engrossed in conversation and so forgot to snap a photo of the platter-sized bison nachos that I selected from the starter menu, and that was after I had requested a half-portion! Well-seasoned bison meat and fresh chopped avocado topped the house made tortilla chips, but still! Is a platter-sized portion Authentic American Dining?
A mid-week lunch at Hillwood was an appreciated deliverance of salad greens. A friend and I could not decide between two equally delicious selections, so the thoughtful chef simply divided each of the salads for us to share!
Okay. This is where I expose either my hypocrisy or my inner foodie. I think 50.000 calories parsed out over the 21 months I’ve been overseas counts as “everything in moderation,” but I’m fine with being judged. This was a dining highlight of the week that both Anna Grace and I purposefully saved for our departure day. First, brunch at Bob & Edith’s, a family run hole-in-the-wall diner since 1969, with the decor unchanged in about as many years.
Breakfast at Bob & Edith’s was a family treat on pleasant-weather Saturdays in the summer. With the bicycles loaded onto the vehicle, we would stop in for food fuel before hitting the capital area trails for a 20 mile trail ride followed by an afternoon at our swim club. See? Everything in moderation. No need to consult the menu, either, as there is no finer start to the day than corned beef hash, white toast with orange marmalade, and unsweetened black iced tea. Perfection on a formica-topped table.

Last, but not at all least, burgers from Five Guys while waiting for our flight home.  Founded by Michigan alumni, Five Guys is a burger joint par excellence, but is not for the meek. Their regular double bacon cheeseburger is almost too much for Jack. We gals opted for “Little Burgers,” though I did adorn mine with bacon and grilled onions. A fitting finale to my 50.000 calorie week.

A Fabulous Finale

In 1955 Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post family fortune and four-time divorcee (including a gig as the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia) made the Georgian estate her home. Following her death in 1973, Hillwood became a showcase for her extensive art collection; and the gardens, impeccably groomed acreage for the public to enjoy. 
The estate has always been one of my favorite places to visit. Elegant but not at all pretentious; and stately but not boastful. Visiting gives me hope that modern society will eventually return to the civilized state where less is more, and manners are everything. The beautiful weather, and the company of Anna Grace and a good friend, made the visit even more enjoyable.
The French Drawing Room, graceful and homey.
The Theater Room.
A dream kitchen, even for the contemporary chef.

 Oh, but for a range like this. A Magic Chef, indeed.

Marjorie’s Dressing Room.

Marjorie Merriweather Post had a special interest in Russia and in Russian art, and during her time as the ambassador’s wife amassed a stunning collection of icons, porcelain, and several Faberge eggs, only two of which were currently on display.

The Dacha on the grounds houses special exhibits. Just this week the Passion of the Empress: Catherine the Great’s Art Patronage opened, a special treat.

Photography in the Dacha was not permitted. This photo of a Russian drinking vessel is courtesy of Hillwood’s webpage.
Tucked behind the Dacha is a sweet and thoughtful cemetery for the many pets of the family’s three daughters.

 The Japanese Garden is a favorite in any weather.

Hillwood Estate. Fabulous.

Postcards from my ‘hood

The U.S. post code we call home is many things, from “wealthiest post code” in the nation to the post code whose residents ordered the most copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from amazon.com, to a handful of other odd accolades.
But we also have history. A young history relative to Vienna’s, but a history nevertheless. Union and Confederate troops traipsed across our boundaries during the Civil War, with the former Cherry Hill Plantation as both a spectator and participant. Now the farmhouse offers afternoon tea and occasional seasonal events.
In the first half of the 20th century the Williamsburg and Old Dominion (Virginia’s nickname) railroad crossed our main street. Today it is a 45 mile long bike trail, and our bridge keeps the cyclists moving over the traffic.

Once upon a time the District of Columbia extended west across the Potomac River into our city. That secure rock along our eastern city line is one of the original boundary stones.

Fort Taylor Park, also along our eastern city line. This small hilltop is the site of the first U.S. military aerial reconnaissance mission; Thomas Lowe’s observation ballon was launched here in 1861.

A late afternoon snap of the bell tower of The Falls Church, whose historic parishioners include America’s first president, George Washington; and Francis Scott Key, author of The Star Spangled Banner.

And lastly, a monument at Tinner Hill to the African-Americans who fought against segregated housing by forming the organization that would become the first rural branch of the NAACP.  There are three historic homes in the Tinner Hill neighborhood, as well, but they are occupied and so I did not wish to upset the residents by taking photos.

Playing Tourist

Coordinating my social diva’s calendar for this week has required maneuvers and a matrix the military would like to have; and in between, I even managed to carve out a few hours for myself.

The National Archives is one of my favorite places and warrants a visit, not just to see the Declaration of Independence. The curators have displayed our nation’s history in documents so masterfully that it makes an otherwise dry topic worth investigating. And once a year the Emancipation Proclamation is displayed, it being too fragile to display on a regular basis. I was fortunate to view the document this week. No photographs are permitted, naturally.

En route from Archives to American History, a walk through the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden always makes me smile (as do blue skies and 12°C temperatures). This is my favorite sculpture.

 America’s Attic, the National Museum of American History. A stern building in appearance.

Once through security, a pixel-ed Star Spangled Banner greets visitors. This “flag” hangs in the position where the real flag was once displayed. In the gallery behind is the real flag, secure under glass and preservation gases, that flew atop Fort McHenry in 1814. 

 America’s Attic holds treasures of all kinds, most of which I have seen dozens of times. There is one permanent exhibit, however, that I can never resist visiting: Julia Child’s kitchen from her home in Massachusetts. To me Julia did not just change the way America cooked, she, like Marjorie Merriweather Post, were the consummate Trailing Spouses–exploring and embracing whatever city they had landed in and making the most of it. I hope to visit Hillwood, the Post estate and museum while I am here, as well. We shall see.

Oh, to have that six-burner stove. I have an unenviable electric cooktop in my Easy-Bake kitchen in Vienna; the strangers living in the US house get to enjoy my dual-fuel cooktop with grill and downdraft. At least I hope they’re enjoying it.

Julia’s “gleaming batterie de cuisine.”  Sigh.

After leaving Julia’s kitchen I was compelled to visit Paul, a 115 year old Parisian patisserie that has made a leap across the pond, for Le Flan Norman, my favorite apple and almond tart. The tart almost tastes as good as it does in Paris.
Outside tables on a warm and sunny February afternoon.  
DC 1, Vienna 0. I like playing tourist.

Oh America, your snack habits are disgusting.

But this is not a new revelation to me. 
I stopped at our local grocery store this week to collect the lone snack item I am bringing home for the children. There are “fish snacks” available in Austria, but they taste like what one might expect from a landlocked country. 🙂

Curiosity getting the better of me, I wandered a few aisles to see what was new in the snack food realm.

Highly processed whipped peanut butter, with or without chocolate. Are you too lazy to spread regular peanut butter on bread, America?

Packing a lunch for school children in America is too passé, I guess. This is the “Lunchables” section of the grocery. Lunchables are packages of deli meat, cheese, crackers, and usually a sugary snack and something equally as sugary to drink. These bundles of fatty, mechanically separated and pressed meats, and other salty, sugary disgustingness feed into the delusion that American parents are too harried to prepare something edible for the little darlings they are spending kabillions of dollars on for sports practice, music lessons, and everything else that makes them “harried.”  Is there a question why American children have so many “allergies?” Perhaps too many of them aren’t eating real food.

This is a mechanically separated chicken nugget Lunchables, with the sugary drink in a pouch and the box of candy to balance the meal.  I’ve spared you the “Lunchables Deep Dish Pizza” photo.

I know, I know, we Americans love our freedom of choice. But, really? I don’t miss incurring a migraine in trying to find a box of crackers at the grocery.  This glut of options was not limited to snack foods either. Small wonder parents believe they are harried: Groovy Cheez-Its or Nacho Cheez-Its or SpongeBob Cheez-Its? Yikes! 
Fat Free Pringles. They are not technically potato chips; rather, a pressed and baked slurry of rice, wheat, and potato flakes. Yum, yum. (In all fairness, this crap is available in Vienna, too.)
“Fruit” snacks were the bane of parenting when our children were young. These conveniently packaged waxy and gelatinous shaped gummies often containing food colorings that are banned throughout much of Europe appeared at every playdate and party, and on rare occasion in our house. But hey, most of them do contain some amount of fruit, so they can’t be all bad, right? Plus, so much more fun to eat than real fruit!
This discovery puzzled me. Why is British food relegated to the Cookies and (second) Cracker lane?
The cereal selection spanned the length of one lane. Basically the choices could be pared down to about a dozen, but the more choices, the better!  This one made me laugh. One of the worst products in its category for that “most important meal of the day.”
Finally, this one was just plain baffling. GOYA is a family-run company that offers Spanish, Mexican and Hispanic specialties. Anyone for Viena Embuditos?

Willkommen in den USA!

Ten long hours on Austrian Airlines later, that was the first welcome sign we spied coming off the jetway into Immigration at Dulles on Friday.  Too funny.
Thus far I’ve mostly felt lost in translation. Barely two years ago I could drive this area with my eyes closed. Figuratively, that is. Now there are new lanes and signs that frighten the bejeebies out of me. I am grateful to be driving a rental car with Missouri plates to mask my true identity; fellow drivers have been courteous and accommodating of my random breaking, and Anna Grace is silent when I periodically shriek.
Whenever we wish, though, we can retreat from the urban madness to the quiet lanes of our ‘hood. 
More comforts of “home.” On Saturday we joined friends for dinner at our favorite local Italian restaurant and an evening performance by the NSO of a Dvorak concerto at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
This is the Hall of Nations at the Kennedy Center (there is also a corresponding Hall of States). Within the hall hangs a flag for every nation with whom the U.S. has diplomatic relations.  I like the friendly proximity of the American and Austrian flags. 
A couple more of my favorite monuments. The Jefferson Memorial from across the ice crusted Tidal Basin, and the iconic Washington Monument, the scaffolding from earthquake damage a couple of years ago just barely visible at the base.

Meanwhile, on the home front, the boys spent the weekend in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The three of them pronounced it an attractive and walkable city.

Emperor Clayton Theodore enjoyed surveying his kingdom from atop the ruins of Celje Castle, as well.

More postcards from DC to follow…

How to Travel Plan

March 1993. Tony and I moved to Washington, D.C. from the upper midwest shortly before getting hitched. Halfway through our drive the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes (like autobahns, but not even close) closed, leaving us to creep along on the ice-covered mountain roads, finally seeking shelter at a hotel in Fairmont, West Virginia. I am fairly certain I slept standing up.
This beautiful satellite image I thought I’d toss in for fun. This young, married couple was not traveling, but rather, was stuck indoors for a week in January 1996. Jack was born in September 1996. Planning of a different kind. 
August 2005. The four of us set sail aboard the Disney Magic, the happiest floating place on earth. The Mouse made sure we parents stayed happy, too, when the 4-day cruise to the Bahamas turned into a 7-day cruise to Mexico thanks to Hurricane Frances. To this day, still one of our favorite holidays.
February 2007. We got the crazy notion to spend a long Valentine’s weekend in NYC with the children. We flew to LaGuardia and had a truly wonderful weekend, always with an eye on the weather. In the wee hours of our departure morning it became clear we were not flying home, so I crept in my jammies to the hotel lobby (no Internet in the rooms) and booked the last four tickets home on Amtrak. The train got us to DC, but public transportation was not running to the airport. Thankfully, some entrepreneurial young men were offering transportation in their SUVs. While I and the children staked out a clean corner of Union Station to wait, Tony caught a lift to the airport to retrieve our own SUV. After two decades of married bliss Tony will still not disclose just how much that lift cost.
Not far to travel in 2010, just 2.5 miles down the road to the Whole Foods for beer, wine, chips, salsa, organic cheese puffs and other essentials to get us through SNOWMAGGEDON! 

With the wisdom of age and the years of experience in my travel memory book, to where might you think Anna Grace and I will attempt to board a transatlantic flight tomorrow morning? Where else?

The biggest storm to hit since SNOWMAGGEDON! is clobbering DC right now. A kind friend across the pond messaged that Dulles Airport just closed. The forecast for later next week in DC calls for mild temperatures, even reaching 15°C by midweek!  In order to meet the draconian baggage limits imposed on us by Austrian Airlines, I have decided to wear all of my winter clothes and pack some spring wear, prompting a Bibendum reference, which dear friend says I would never match. Of course not, I would wear black.
I am confident ours will be the first plane to land at Dulles on Friday.
Thank you, NOAA and the Internet for the photos. 

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