Dram! I wish I was your lover!

When Kat and I decided we’d head up to Scotland, I knew immediately that we’d be drinking a lot of scotch whisky. I love scotch. Visiting some of my favorite distilleries  has been a dream of mine for many years.

I love scotch as much as this guy. No joke.

I love scotch as much as Ron Burgundy. 

We were researching how to spend our time in Scotland and out of the blue Kat says to me “Hey, we can go to this distillery! It’s only an hour away from Glasgow and we can get there on the train. It’s….ow..che…owken….tosh…” At this point I blurted in a girlish scream “YOU MEAN AUCHENTOSHAN?!” She looks up, startled by my reaction. “Uh yeah, I guess. Is that a good one?” Kat didn’t know it but she had just named one of my absolute favorite scotches. I was so excited I couldn’t stand it.

So, here’s the thing. Whisky distilleries require a lot of space to operate. You’ve gotta store all your grains and yeasts, you’ve gotta have space for the actual stills and the wash tubs and the mash tubs and everything. Then once the scotch is ready, you can’t just sell it. For a spirit to legally be called “Scotch whisky” (FYI — it’s just called “whisky” in scotland) it has to age at least 3 years and 1 day. Obviously, more premium scotches age for many more years. So you’ve gotta have warehouses to store all these barrels as well. The whole point of me telling you this is that there is no such thing as an urban distillery. They tend to be way out there in the middle of nowhere. You’re expected to drive to them. That we could take the train from Glasgow to get to Auchentoshan was a real boon for us.

But here’s the thing — you CAN take the train (or the bus) but they don’t make it easy. I don’t want to get into it, but getting to the distillery was a bit nerve wracking. We got off the train and kinda sorta knew which way to go….but not really.

"Dave, are you lost? Do you know where you're going?" "Uh, I think...the map says....just...hold on."

“Dave, are you lost? Do you know where you’re going?”
“Uh, I think…the map says….just…hold on.”

"DAVE. THIS IS THE ON-RAMP TO A HIGHWAY. I AM NOT WALKING ON THIS!" "THIS IS WHAT THE MAP SAYS TO DO. THIS IS HOW WE'RE GOING. DEAL WITH IT."

“DAVE. THIS IS THE ON-RAMP TO A HIGHWAY. I AM NOT WALKING ON THIS!”
“THIS IS WHAT THE MAP SAYS TO DO. THIS IS HOW WE’RE GOING. DEAL WITH IT.”

So WHAT if we had to walk on the side of a six-lane highway for a half mile or so. So WHAT if we had to scamper across that six-lane highway to get to the other side. We MADE it, right? Jeez, Kat. Stop being such baby.

After escaping death, we finally made it. My Shangri-la:

It's...the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

It’s…the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Double-pointing. THAT'S HOW EXCITED I AM TO BE HERE.

Double-pointing. THAT’S HOW EXCITED I AM TO BE HERE.

We paid our 7 quid each for the tour and so it began. Our tour was small — just us and four other Scottish people who are independent whisky bottlers who were sorta there to network. Our tour leader, Flora, was super awesome. We chatted with her for a bit — she had studied in South Korea and it BLEW HER MIND that we had been there. She was about our age and we had a great time with her — it didn’t hurt that she hooked us up with some free drams at the end.

So, I could talk about whisky distilling process for hours and, honestly, I know that would probably bore a lot of you, so I’ll try to keep this part brief.

This is the mash tun. This is where it all starts -- every single bottle. The malted barley is dumped in here and mixed with hot water to break down the sugars.

This is the mash tun. This is where it all starts — every single bottle. The malted barley is dumped in here and mixed with hot water to break down the sugars.

Smells a bit like malty oatmeal?

Smells a bit like malty oatmeal?

The goop from the mash tun is then put into the washbacks where yeast is added and it’s allowed to ferment. This baaaasically, more or less, turns it into a 7-8% alcohol beer. Did you know that whisky is basically just distilled beer? MIND. BLOWN. Basic how alcohol is made lesson: The yeast eats the sugars from the malted barley, the by-product of this is CO2 and alcohol. When the yeast is full, it goes to sleep and turns into nasty goop.

Washbacks. Fermentin' like a BAWS.

Washbacks. Fermentin’ like a BAWS.

The “beer” inside the washback looks pretty gnarly, nasty yeast floating on the top and burping and bubble occasionally as CO2 is explled — but it IS drinkable.

Technically potable...

Technically potable…

So, when our tour leader sarcastically asked if any of us wanted to taste it, of COURSE I said “Yeah! Really?!” She looked at me like I had 3 heads but said, “Uh, ok…” and she got a big ladle and scooped me out a bit.

It tasted like....warm gross  flat beer. Not my favorite.

It tasted like….warm gross flat beer. Not my favorite.

Alright, so now the beer is ready to be turned into whisky. And THIS is where the magic happens:

Every single drop of Auchentoshan sold goes through these three stills.

Every single drop of Auchentoshan sold goes through these three stills. Hard to get scale here, but they’re, like, 25 feet tall.

I’m not gonna get into everything that goes on in this part of the process. If you’re interested read more here: http://www.auchentoshan.com/triple-distillation-(our-way)/triple-distillation.aspx Basically, alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. The washback is heated, the alcohol vapors rise and then are condensed back into a liquid. That’s the super abbreviated version. Auchentoshan distills their whisky three times — no other distillery distills their whisky more than twice. So Auchentoshan heavily markets their “triple distilled” whisky. (Something else you learn is just how much of the scotch whisky industry is about marketing, a lot of which is sort of bullshit. Does the extra distillation make a difference? I mean, PROBABLY but does it make it better? Who can know?) What comes out of this process is, at the very beginning, some really nasty poisonous stuff (called “foreshot”) that’s siphoned off and, eventually, an 81% alcohol clear spirit. They had a bottle of this to taste as well. It tasted exactly as you’d expect — super strong, super burn going down, I did not want more after my tiny sip. It’s watered down to 63.5% abv before it’s put in the barrels for aging.

This is the spirit safe. This is what the master distiller uses to sample and control the distillation process to make sure that everything's going just as it should.

This is the spirit safe. This is what the master distiller uses to sample and control the distillation process to make sure that everything’s going just as it should.

Like I said, for whisky to be called “scotch” it legally must age for at least 3 years and 1 day. Auchentoshan uses several different types of barrels to age its whisky: used American bourbon barrels and two different types of Spanish sherry barrels. These barrels are remarkably expensive (a few hundred dollars each and they can only be used 3 times) so this is another reason for scotch’s relatively high price.

On a side note, a major trick of the whole scotch industry is the idea that older=better. But, really, are you gonna be able to taste a difference between a 10 year and a 9 year? No, it’s sort of stupid. In fact, Macallan, one of the most popular scotches in America, has transitioned from traditional age labels and into “color” based labels. Really, the reason that older whisky is more expensive, other than marketers use age to justify higher prices, is that the longer the whisky sits in the barrel, the more of it that evaporates, so there’s literally just LESS of it the older it gets.

We were allowed to walk through the warehouse where the barrels are stored but, unfortunately, no photos were permitted in there — allegedly because flashes could cause a spark and given the high amount of alcohol vapors in the air, that could lead to a huge explosion. Seemed suspect to me, but them’s the rules.

So after it ages in certain barrels for a certain amount of time, what comes out the other end is this:

Hello, lovers...

Hello, lovers…And you can sort of see tour leader Flora behind the bottles

The tour ended and we were brought to the tasting room where we were given a complimentary dram of the 12 year. I also sampled the three wood and the 18 year. Flora suggested that the 21 year wasn’t really worth it — expensive and not that good she said. Again — older doesn’t mean better. The clear winner for me and Kat was the three wood, meaning it was aged in all three types of barrels that Auchentoshan uses. One review says of the three wood: After three distillations and three barrel maturations the scotch is soft, incredibly mellow, sweet with berry and dried fruits, oozing with caramel and brown sugar and vanilla, creamy butterscotch, and a light whiff of toasted hazelnuts, finishing with distinct toffee flavors.

Final step of the process: savor and enjoy.

Final step of the process: savor and enjoy.

I didn’t even touch the differences between all the different regions of Scotland (Auchentoshan is a lowland scotch, one of the very few single malts of the lowlands) and the difference between single-malts and blends. Seriously people, I could talk about this ALL DAY.

After we’d finished our whisky it was time to head back to the train station. Fortunately, we asked around and found a safer way to get back (through an unmarked path that FOR REASONS UNKNOWN AUCHENTOSHAN DOES NOT ADVERTISE ON THEIR WEBSITE). As we were waiting for our train, a gentle rain began to fall, but that did not deter the old ladies next to us who were engaging in a heated lawn bowling match

SAM_2946

I love Scotland.

Apologies to Sophie B. Hawkins for the title of this post.

Edinburgh: so beautiful I could just zzzzzzzzzzzz……

I hugged Danielle goodbye at 8am before she stuffed herself into a cab to embark on a week-long business trip. I hugged her boyfriend goodbye two hours later as we were off to take the train to Edinburgh.

The train was completely uneventful which to me now seems a bit boring. You mean everyone was behaved on the train? No one had their foot on my back the entire ride? People quietly murmured about the Bruce Springsteen concert? Pppfffft.

Four hours later we emerged from the train station and then quickly settled into our very cute bed and breakfast. We walked around just to get our bearings and then oh look — we had walked by everything there was to walk by in the city. From then on we didn’t quite need a map which was a nice break from being lost for 6 months.

We took our time, mostly strolling in the drizzle and swearing under our breath about it being June and why am I in a fleece AND a rain jacket. We had passed a milestone: having spent long enough in the UK to see a fleeting moment of glorious weather and then spend the rest of the time annoyed it was cold and drizzly.

we took lots of moody pictures

we took lots of moody pictures

We did a good bit of touristing in Edinburgh, in addition to ambling around looking at REALLY OLD THINGS.

main shopping drag in Edinburgh

main shopping drag in Edinburgh

And passing by places where REALLY OLD PEOPLE WERE BORN.

ring ring

ring ring

We visited the castle (of course) where in line, a Spanish woman interrupted my conversation with Dave (in English) to ask me if I was Spanish (in Spanish). I said no. I am wondering if Dave sewed Spanish flags on the backs of all my shirts because this was the most aggressive “BUT SURELY YOU MUST BE SPANISH” in the face of “BUT CLEARLY I AM TOTALLY NOT” which amuses me the further we are from these incidents. At home no one thinks I am Spanish.  This gives me a sad. Here  I am just another girl with a nasal mid-Atlantic accent who wears brightly colored trousers. ENNUI, it runs deep.

The castle looked just like Hogwarts

hogwarts or edinburgh castle?

hogwarts or edinburgh castle?

which thrilled me until I saw signs all around Edinburgh where a few hip-looking establishments had “JK Rowling not welcome” signs out front where then I decided Hogwarts was stupid and WHATEVER, JK ROWLING.

Dave wanted to put a sign up that said "stop making me take dumb pictures"

Dave wanted to put a sign up that said “stop making me take dumb pictures”

boom

boom

Dave is used to taking direction

Dave is used to taking direction

We of course engaged in the BanhMi&You tradition of walking around and finding a bar and drinking a new beer for Dave to check into on Untapp’d on my ancient iphone 3Gs as his even more ancient iphone 3G would not support the app. A friend of a friend directed us to a bar connected to a church where the bartenders wore shirts of the app and I had to drag DaveKlein out of there to go get some food.

beer nerds, unite!

beer nerds, unite!

We ate well in Edinburgh but not as well as we did in Glasgow. More on that soon.

gorgeous!

gorgeous!

Edinburgh was stunning. Beautiful. Also, a bit of a snoozefest.

one of two moments of sun in edinburgh

one of two moments of sun in edinburgh

It’s just so touristy and everything revolves around tourism that there wasn’t much real life to come up on. No, I am not buying a kilt. No, I am not taking a picture with a dude with bagpipes. No, I am not going to eat haggis out when our bed and breakfast serves it up.

flag

flag

Though I will say the accents of Edinburgh are amazingly beautiful. It was a stark contrast when we got to Glasgow and would look at each other wide-eyed when someone spoke to us and we had to consider pretending to be Spanish it sounded so foreign.

We were in Edinburgh for three nights and then visited the countryside and Glasgow and then came back for one night as we were flying to Marrakech from Edinburgh for our final two weeks of the trip.

This is where we stayed in the shittiest place on the trip. The Edinburgh Film Festival was going on so there was literally NO WHERE to stay and since we would be in town for all of like, 15 hours we went with the cheapest option: a crappy hostel.

Only when we showed up we realized that our hostel room was part of the University of Edinburgh dorms. So we stayed in a “private double” that was essentially good enough for one student. We almost slept head to toe on our tiny twin+ bed. The staff were all Americans studying at the university and when I decided to puff out my American chest and be like WTF about the tiny bed they tried to play some “well have you thought about cultural differences about what a double bed might be” and that’s when no one might consider I was Spanish because I gave them some good old, American attitude.

Which of course got me nowhere but deep down inside, it felt a little awesome to be a pushy American just brushing up on the line of being a jerk to someone who would understand my restraint in not being full out jerk.

USA! USA! USA!

the second moment of sun in edinburgh

the second moment of sun in edinburgh

 

 

 

 

 

Taking the air in Brighton

We were ready for a beach day after spending time in the UK and the Netherlands so when Danielle suggested that we take a day trip to Brighton, I was all for it. She (knowingly) persuaded me by reminding me that Brighton wasn’t just the beach, but was the Rehoboth Beach of Southwest London and if we were very lucky we might spot a Banksy. And get some sun. And eat fried things.

So, twist my arm why don’t you.

Danielle and I were so excited the morning we woke up! We both wore summery outfits! We brought things so we could sun ourselves by the pier! We smugly put on sunscreen before leaving the house, proud of ourselves for being so responsible. We took a very early bus to Blackfriars station and hopped the hour-long train ride to the seaside, READY FOR THE BEACH. A Jersey girl and a Philly girl love us a beach. DaveKlein just trailed behind us for the morning journey while we giddily talked about boardwalks! Fried things! Tan lines! He was so smug in his hoodie and was waiting for the moment that did not occur to me and I think Danielle was trying to ignore:

That the weather was going to be total crap.

I froze. It was so cold. But so cool! We had a great time walking around!

We left the train station in search of coffee and immediately found an original Banksy which excited me way more than it should have.

Exit through the Gift Shop

Exit through the Gift Shop

There is great street art in Brighton (here’s my other favorites).

Audrey Hepburn in a surgical mask?

Audrey Hepburn in a surgical mask?

"Scream"-era Michael Jackson

“Scream”-era Michael Jackson

We had a lovely coffee to warm up (#BritishSummer) and then went straight to the pier.

CAFFEINE!

CAFFEINE! (mis-spelled? British-spelled?)

We rode a roller coaster for 8-year-olds which scared the crap out of me because I am a HUGE BABY.

Brighton! (And the sun trying to come out!)

Brighton! (And the sun trying to come out!)

Dave and I mugging for the camera

Dave and I mugging for the camera

We ate fish and chips to console ourselves about the sun and to calm my fried nerves from the baby coaster.

FRIED! (it was only OK)

FRIED! (it was only OK)

We stubbornly sat on the VERY rocky beach determined to see a peak of sun. We saw about one silver of sun. Everyone else was in long pants and shirts. CLOSED TOED SHOES, EVEN. We shivered in the breeze and stubbornly ignored everyone else’s sensible (GERMANS! DAMN IT!) attire.

BOOOOOOO

BOOOOOOO

The sun came out for about 6 minutes.

The sun came out for about 6 minutes.

notice all the sunbathers...

notice all the sunbathers…

 

posing, as usual

posing, as usual

Danielle then said the magical sentence that turned the day around for me.

“In the gay part of town there’s a tea house I’ve been wanting to go to — wanna try and find it?”

SAM_2722

YES, my sister.

SAM_2688

SAM_2689

YES.

SAM_2703

SAM_2701

SAM_2710

IT

SAM_2705

WAS

SAM_2700

GLORIOUS.

SAM_2707

Then we unexpectedly ran into the “Brighton Naked Bikeride” and learned WAY MORE about our fellow man than I ever had before. The Naked Bikeride was about 98% male and to summarize: I saw things that I can’t un-see.  And this is coming from me who after three years at HRC not much makes me blush. Ok everything still makes me blush but I’m not surprised by much. AND I AM AN ALLY IN THE BLUSHING.

Then the sun came out for real and after a bit of window shopping

(that is a pillow)

(that is a pillow)

we tried to erase our memories in rosé wine on the train home because while the UK isn’t the sunniest country, it’s not a police state.

SAM_2686

(as you can sense, we are at home and enjoying ourselves except for Pennsylvania’s ridiculous liquor laws. Oh and the “unemployed” part.)

London: Like coming home, but with a queen.

So after fun biking around a park, drinking beer, drinking beer, and drinking beer, we left Neil for something very exciting: the English Language. Also, my sister from another mister: Danielle! We were off to the UK! We were VERY EXCITED because:

1.)    London is AWESOME

2.)    Time with Danielle and JP!

3.)    We could ask for things without worrying about vocabulary (other than the standard lorry: truck, etc)

4.)    We could understand things around us. We’d been calling conversation “ambient noise” because seriously, no matter where you are, if it ain’t a romance language, it all sounds Korean to us.

5.)    We could read all signs

6.)    LONDON IS AWESOME

Neil suggested in weeks prior that we try flying out of “Dusseldorf” instead of Amsterdam purely as a lower-cost option and also the fun of going to Germany just to go to the airport. Schipol airport in Amsterdam is 2 trains and an hour and forty-five minutes from where he lives. Weeze (pronounced: Veeyyyytzaahh)  a small, regional, low-cost carrier airport in very suburban “Dusseldorf” was a 45 minute shared taxi ride. Off we flew from “Weezey”(airport code: WZE)  as we affectionately called it.

Only…. The UK wanted to make it difficult for us. To be fair — we had little to offer. Having no plans when you enter the European Union as an American was no big deal. We had no onward travel plans when we flew to Spain but I’m sure they figured we’d be someone else’s problem.

The UK was not amused. To be fair—it sounded way worse than it was. I’m also sure if we had not been American we would have been denied entry. The Home Officer who talked with us for nearly an hour made us sound VERY menacing.

Summary of questions and comments from the immigration officer:

“You mean to tell me you don’t have the full address of the friends you are staying with, neither of whom are British citizens… You have no onward travel plans… You cannot tell us where exactly once you book said travel plans where you might be going… You have no idea how long you’ll be here but it will be three weeks to one month… You have no proof of means to exist here in the UK and we cannot exactly trust that you won’t try to find work… You have been gone from your home country for many months and we cannot presume you are employed and will LEAVE the UK to return to those jobs…”

Gulp.

Needless to say, after an hour of pleading, politely sharing more information, swearing up and down we wouldn’t overstay our visa and we had no interest in staying, they begrudgingly let us in with a cautionary warning stamp. And a serious talking to. Needless to say,  we booked our onward travel and took screenshots of bank information and learned Danielle’s full post code.

That’ll be fun when we return to the UK to visit them next. Also for a country who was mainly concerned with us trying to work and for us to RETURN to the US to work, they never outright asked us if we were currently employed….

#oops.

So Danielle is my BFF who went to Syracuse (holler to SU – the GW of the north) from whose illustrious alumni have cobbled together an oddly large number of friends. D and I met while being ladies who plan things for a mutual friend’s wedding and we’ve been comparing family recipes, the Way Our Mothers Do The Same Things, how we were raised, food we ate,books to read,  music we like and gossip ever since.  She moved away to London a few years ago and though we don’t see each other as often as we used to, she has an excellent incentive for us to visit in London: a guest room in an awesome house that she and her man-partner just bought in North London. So yes, she wins.

By way of this backstory is why, you see, we didn’t do like, ALL! THE! THINGS! In London. I lived there as a student for 5 months. We’ve been to visit her numerous times. Gone are the days tromping around dying to see the Tower of London. Hello us rolling our eyes at tourists who think “London Bridge” is what they see when they look at Tower Bridge. For us it’s like going to New York City—the fun is a few museums, eating strolling, getting lost, and then finding your way. It’s familiar, we generally don’t need a map, and if you squint it’s like being home only home has gotten crazy person expensive.

SAM_2569

SAM_2578

We did take a few detours which we will share later, but here are some fun things we did that may not be fun things to you but MAN OH MAN are they fun when you have been living out a suitcase.

  • Went for runs
  • Did laundry
  • Cooked dinner. In a kitchen
  • Did dishes
  • Ran errands for friends who are real grown-ups with day jobs that keep them long hours
  • Food shop
  • Watch daytime TV
  • Tear up a little when Ina Garten reruns show up
  • Sleep in
  • Yoga
  • Use their INSANELY fast internets before Google Reader bit the dust (RIP GOOGLE READER)
  • Drink NECTAR OF THE GODS—SWEET, SWEET AMERICAN FILTER COFFEE.
  • Get my hair cut (Sayonara, pinky)
Cropped!

Cropped!

 

Here are the fun things we did with friends:

  • Go out to eat
  • Chat
  • Tease the menfolk
  • Have the menfolk be none-too-pleased with our teasing
  • Drink rose wine
  • Drink beers
  • Perv on other people’s awesome dogs together
  • Stroll
  • Window shop
  • Visit a craft brewing festival
  • Visit them for lunch at their awesome office
  • GET SOME AWESOME NAIL ART
yesssssss!

yesssssss!

  • Wander around the canals and find some 20-somethings rafting and drinking

SAM_2541

  • Shudder at the thought of what might be in those canals

Here are the fun touristy things we did in London proper:

  • See the David Bowie retrospective at the V & A
  • Visit the Tate Modern where we got engaged lo these many years ago (Danielle had offered lots of advice/help to Dave and the event was coined “Operation Penguin)
  • Visit the Portrait Gallery
  • Visit the British Museum
  • Walked along the Thames, Parliament and Westminster Abbey
  • Had coffee in a coffee shop that used to be men’s’ public toilets

SAM_2612

  • Take 100 pictures of awesome street art

SAM_2588

  • Had pie and mash from the oldest pie shop in the city

SAM_2741

  • Visit Borough Market
  • If you are Dave, have a great time riding the Emirates Air Line

SAM_2737

  • If you are me, pretend you are having a great time riding the Emirates Air Line (TERRIFIED)

SAM_2734

SAM_2739

So thanks heaps to DZ and JP and their awesome house in Stokey. It was also really fun to not tourist too hard, and just BE. WITH. FRIENDS. Acting normally! I will forever know your gate code so please don’t change it before we come back! Also let it be publicly known, that Danielle and JP are on THE LIST.

THE.LIST.OF.PEOPLE.WE.OWE.BIGTIME

Also on this list:

  • Neil
  • Brock & Josh

Everyone likes a house guest until they announce they are staying for over two weeks.

Naturally, due to Danielle’s upbringing, she had fresh flowers in the guest room, lent us a subway card, and would report back on all the good dogs she saw that day while we were apart.

 

 

 

Antwerp – Belgian Schizophrenia, Waffles, Beer, Beer, Beer

Say what you want about the tenants of the Dutch, at least it’s an ethos. That is more than can be said for Belgium which only can be called a nation in the most technical of senses. It’s got borders and (sort of) a government, but generally, like lots of Africa, it was created by taking groups of people who don’t belong together and forcing them into a tight space. As far as I can tell, it means nothing to be Belgian. These people can’t even agree upon a language – French is spoken in the south (Wallonia) and Dutch in the north (Flanders).

So when Americans think of Belgium, what crosses our minds? Waffles, obviously. Beer, for sure. Maybe chocolate? MAYBE French fries (The Dutch and Belgians have a longstanding rivalry over who first invented the concept of dunking sliced potatoes in boiling oil. I argue that just PERHAPS it’s not so innovative a concept that possibly they both come up with the idea concurrently.)

In yet another attempt to escape the infuriating blandness of the Netherlands, Kat and I boarded several trains on our way to Antwerp, a city in the Dutch speaking part of the “country.” Antwerp is a visually interesting city. First off, the train station is unbelievably gorgeous. A modern edifice built entirely around the grand old 19th century station. Truly one of the most stunning train stations in all of Europe. The city’s architecture is also somewhat interesting – basically imagine French shopfronts shaped in the tall, narrow Amsterdam style, clearly demonstrating Belgium’s Dutch-French schizophrenia.

A stunning sight that greets you as you come up the escalators (trains leave from one of FOUR different levels!)

A stunning sight that greets you as you come up the escalators (trains leave from one of FOUR different levels!)

French meets Dutch. Frutch? Yes, Frutch. So it shall be known from this day forward.

French meets Dutch. Frutch? Yes, Frutch. So it shall be known from this day forward.

I had been to Antwerp a few years before and I remembered enjoying my time there. It’s the easiest Belgian city to get to from Nijmegen, so that is why we chose it. I’d have loved to visit Medieval Brugges, but it would have taken, like, 5 hours to get there – too far for a day trip.

So what does one DO in Antwerp? There’s some museums, I guess? We’re not huge museum fans generally, so we just walked around all day. Antwerp is a major center for Europe’s diamond trade, and where there are diamonds you’ll find Hasidic Jews. So every so often we’d see a Hasid and Kat would poke me and whisper through clenched teeth “Look! There’s one!” There’s a river in the city and you can walk in a pedestrian-only tunnel underneath it. Now, there’s nothing of note on the other side. It’s just….a thing to do. The tunnel is quite old – the escalators were made of wood! The tunnel is actually sort of neat. Imagine a hallway that is completely and totally straight that goes on for about a kilometer. Kat and I took turns closing our eyes and trying to walk in perfectly straight lines. We didn’t make it far before getting off course and slamming our faces into the walls. So we walked down this tunnel, poked our heads at the other side (there’s a tiny park and a traffic circle) and then walked back.

Of course, we did eat waffles as well. The place we went to is, allegedly, quite famous. Their gimmick is that they’ve been using the same waffle irons for, like, a century or something. The irons DID look old. The waffles were, to be fair, really tasty. Light, crunchy, fluffy. But, you know, it’s a waffle. Hard to lose your mind over.

We had lunch at a sandwich shop cafeteria sort of deal. It was cheap (relatively) and the food was decidedly mediocre. What made it noteworthy was the fact that even though we were paying customers, we STILL had to pay 50 eurocents to use the bathroom. Even the cheap, cheap Dutch aren’t THAT cheap. For this, Belgium, you can suck it.

I know I’ve been pretty harsh on Belgium so far, but it is impossible to deny that the country (specifically the Trappist Monks) make some of the best beers in the world. If you like beer, even a little bit, and you come to Antwerp, you MUST go to De Kulminator. This is, without exaggeration, one of the best beer bars in the entire world. This is not just my opinion. Go ahead and Google it and see what beer nerds the world over have to say about it. For me, De Kulminator is THE reason to visit Antwerp. The entire bar can seat maybe 15 people total. It looks like you’ve walked into your grandfather’s living room. There’s a table that takes up most of the room piled high with junk. The whole damn room is cluttered with junk, in fact. Old magazines, bills, papers, some books. The old man that owns the bar is typically there — he always wears a cardigan and has long scraggly white hair and a permanent scowl on his face. You really feel as if you HAVE stumbled accidently into his parlor and he’s tolerating your presence, but barely. Both times I have been there he’s been doing a crossword puzzle. His wife, meanwhile, scurries around taking orders and delivering drinks.

Now – why is this place so special? De Kulminator specializes in aged beers. Now, I won’t bore you with beer science stuff, but let’s just say that an aged bottle of Chimay will, like wine, take on different characteristics as it ages (whereas a can of Miller Lite will not). I ordered a Wesvleteren 12, a difficult enough beer to find as it is (they don’t distribute it – you literally have to GO to the monastery to get it) – except that this bottle was bottled in 1979. This beer was bottled when Jimmy Carter was President, Iran still had a Shah, and a full THREE YEARS before I was born. It came covered in cobwebs and dust, the bottlecap oxidized. I have no words for the velvety complexity of this beer. I dream about it to this day. Truly, without a doubt, the most amazing beer I have ever had. And, somehow, it only cost 9 euro (about $13). It would have been a bargain at twice the price and I even felt a bit guilty as if they didn’t know they should be charging much, much more.

It might not ever be this good again...

My eyes are glazed over due to existential bliss

We sat in the warm, cluttered but comfortable confines of De Kulminator, had a couple of other beers (A 15 year old Chimay Blue for Kat, a 10 year old Rochefort for me), killing time with idle chatter until it was time to catch our train back to Nijmegen. Maybe Belgium isn’t so bad after all.

We saw, we rode bikes, we sang Ginuwine’s “Pony”

To counterbalance all of the snacking in the Netherlands, beer drinking in Germany, and eating of very large pastries, we decided to not be huge fatties and do something healthy.

At Neil’s delightful suggestion, we took a short train ride and then a decently long bus ride to De Hoge Veluwe.

Neil was prepared for any occasion — with baby food.

Neil and his sauce

Neil and his sauce

It is apparently “world famous” which means “Just famous in Holland” for its 1700 white bicycles. Bike rental is included in your entry ticket and they are cruisers where you break by pedaling backwards. Like straight up child bike styles.

SAM_2384

The bikes were hilarious to ride.

1.)    Most of them had child carriers on the back. Which was particularly hilarious given my company.

Neil chillaxing

Neil chillaxing

Dave constantly making sense of maps in languages he does not speak

Dave constantly making sense of maps in languages he does not speak

2.)    They were VERY uncomfortable seats. VERY. We sometimes had to ride standing up a bit just to give our… errr… undercarriages a break.

VERY NECESSARY UNDER CARRIAGE BREAK FOR THE MENFOLK

VERY NECESSARY UNDER CARRIAGE BREAK FOR THE MENFOLK

3.)    They were cruisers and the Netherlands is incredibly flat so you could go really fast. And then make the mistake I did which was yell, “WWWWWWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE” and then swallow a bug and cough for a while.

COUGHING FROM BUG SWALLOWING / ARTSY MIDDLE SCHOOL PHOTO BREAK

COUGHING FROM BUG SWALLOWING / ARTSY MIDDLE SCHOOL PHOTO BREAK

However, this was maybe the most fun thing we did in the Netherlands, aside from sit on Neil’s couch and sing “Maaad Men, Maaaad Men, Maaaad Men, Maaad men” to the tune of the Mad Men themesong. Neil was an excellent host and pointed us in the right direction often, but this felt very fun, very not tourist hustle and bustle.

We spent the whole afternoon biking around, enjoying the sun, and trying not to swallow more bugs. Then we came home and cooked a healthy dinner and for about five minutes forgot about our unhealthy previous 6 months.

Our chariots (note the child holder whatever)

Our chariots (note the child holder whatever)

Poor Dave suffered a bit during this ride — Neil and I had been particularly cruel about his understanding of pop culture during the 90’s. Dave has suddenly realized that there was some awesome 90’s music that WASN’T stupid pop-punk, ska nonsense that he stuck to as a (gulp) high-schooler. All of a sudden he is super into awesome 90’s R’n’B. As he biked– since we were more or less alone– he would sing Ginuwine’s “Pony” or Salt N Pepa’s “None of your business”.

For reference:

For reference:

For reference:

SAM_1198

YEAH.

The Hague: Behind the Scenes of Dutch Politics

I lived with a Dutch guy, Joost, for a few years in grad school. We parted ways about 8 years ago. I became an international unemployed vagabond and Joost became a city councilman in the Hague and the senior staff member of a mid-sized Dutch political party. I think it’s pretty clear who made the most of their Master’s degree.

I think it's clear which one of these two clowns is going places.

One of TWO Joost’s that I know. True story.

Joost was kind enough to take us on a tour of the Dutch parliament as well as give us a pretty decent walking tour of the city. Due to the variety of international institutions in the Hague (Peace Palace, International Criminal Court etc) the city, allegedly, has one of the largest international communities in all of Europe. I can’t really say that it felt all that international — this is still the Netherlands after all – but it did have a unique feel to it. More sophisticated and business-like than other Dutch cities.

Stay classy, the Hague.

Stay classy, the Hague.

The Peace Palace. One of the Hague's many international institutions that are all doing a fantastic job of ridding our planet of war, hunger, and disease.

The Peace Palace. One of the Hague’s many international institutions that are all doing a fantastic job of ridding our planet of war, hunger, and disease. Keep up the good work, guys!

SAM_2414 SAM_2405

It was great to see an old friend and the Hague was a fun place to spend a few hours. I also got to engage in one of my favorite past times – complaining to public officials! (There was a broken ATM at the train station, so I complained to city councilman Joost about it. He promised to get it sorted immediately). Plus, the sun came out for, like, 2 hours and we were able to have a nice drink outside.

On the train ride home, we stopped off for a 20 minute detour in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. That’s not a typo. This stupid town’s name actually begins with an apostrophe followed by a lowercase ‘s’ and then a hyphen.

Look Dutchies. You can't just go around giving towns names that begin with an apostrophe. This isn't Vietnam. THERE ARE RULES.

Look Dutchies. You can’t just go around giving towns names that begin with an apostrophe. This isn’t Vietnam. THERE ARE RULES.

Of course, we stopped here to do more than just mock this stupid place’s stupid name. ‘s-Hertogenbosch is home to Boschballen, a local delicacy. It’s basically just a giant profiterole. In fact, it is just a giant profiterole. Which, of course, means it’s awesome. We hopped off the train, scarfed down a couple of boschballen, and then hopped right back on the train. It was pretty great.

'it 'was 'really 'delicious. ''''''''

‘it ‘was ‘really ‘delicious. ””””