Monday, January 9, 2023

We live in Israel now!

We landed in Israel some time mid-August after a 10-day cruise through the emerald-green waters of the Mediterranean where we ate and drank our weight in exquisite buffet food and free drinks. Mortified by the weight-gain, we swore off booze the moment we mournfully descended the heights of the cruise ship. The line to board the little-known Israeli budget airline Arkia was unusually long, and had its own separate space at the very end of Rome airport.

That was the first time we realized that Israel would be a different kind of place.  Apparently, everyone going there needs to go through special security checks, which, needless to say, leave the unsuspecting traveler as little startled. We finally reached the check-in desk with our 25 different suitcases, when it became clear that we had not purchased luggage allowance online. After I politely explained that the airline site was exclusively in Hebrew, which I, sadly, do not read, the lovely Italian ladies behind the desk took pity on us and only charged us $200 for the entire circus and let us go and sip beverages in the airport lounge.

I must be honest, there is something about drinking in an airport business lounge or the plane itself – even if it is 8 am, you can already see people milling about the bar, pondering the shame of having a sip of cognac, and then with certain stealthy decisiveness, pouring themselves a solid glass of hard liquor and taking a selfie with it to send to their less cool, un-traveling friends. Our plane was only 3 hours late and so we postponed our teetotalling a little more, enjoying the lovely free Italian prosecco in the lounge. As a result, I climbed the plane in a fantastic frame of mind, ready to hug and love every single loud passenger on it.

3 hours later, slightly sobered up, we landed in hot and humid Tel Aviv, where colleagues from the Embassy picked us up and took us to our new home, just in time to watch the sunset over the Mediterranean from the rooftop of our house. Hello! Welcome to Israel – we can see the sea from our rooftop??! Whaaaaat? I was already imagining all the cocktails I would have there. Who said we are not drinking??

I admit that this is the best house we have ever lived in our Foreign Service life, and I spent a good 30 minutes trying to explore all of its nooks, crannies, and floors. With 4 floors (if you count the rooftop), the house even used to have an elevator, but someone came to their senses, boarded it up and turned the shafts into excellent storage space.

The Mediterranean sea within a 7-minute walk from our house or not, I was so exhausted from all the summer travels, that I simply refused to go see the beach that night (oh please, stop gasping! That sea’s been there for thousands of years, I was sure it would be there the following day). In fact, it would take 3 whole days for me to finally make it there and dip my feet in the tea-warm, crystal-clear water.

Now, when I say that we live in Tel Aviv, let me clarify that – since we chose for once to live in a house, and not in a tiny apartment in the party downtown, we now live in Tel Aviv suburbia. Think Herndon, VA, but with a beach. And warm. So warm. So wonderfully warm after the soul-wrenching cold of the Northern European winters from the past 4 years. It is winter now, and I often hesitate to wear a light jacket out during the day.

So, without further due, first impressions:

·       Tel Aviv and its people remind me of Rio de Janeiro!

·       There are cats EVERYWHERE. So. Many. Cats. If you thought the Greeks love and religiously feed street cats, the Israelis have them beat! Every street is lined up with piles of dry food and large containers of water to feed them. All street cats are fat, with glistening luxurious fur, and a lazy gait, suggesting a life of leisure and bonbons. In fact, when I was shopping for food for the Silly Cats in the store, the sales lady saw me perusing a certain brand (of admittedly cheaper) cat food and told me with clear disapproval in her eyes – “Oh, this is only for street cats, you don’t want it!” Lady, from where exactly do you think I have gotten mine – the Buckingham Palace?? They are purebred Ukrainian street cats and I am not about to ruin them or their unrefined tastes. Also, the other food was absurdly expensive…

·       I have never seen so many children and babies per square foot. Anywhere you turn, in any public transportation, in any store, street, or corner, there would be at least two strollers with babies about to run through you, toddlers running around, ideally screaming, multiple young kids discussing something exceedingly exciting in lightening-fast Hebrew and giggling delightedly at each other all the time, and more and more babies in various state of sleeping, eating, or crying. Next to them would be several pregnant women.

·       It appears as if half of the Israelis are dressed in military uniform and casually carrying giant automatic weapons around like it’s a regular bag of pita.  Military service is mandatory in Israel for everyone over 18, and both girls and boys serve in the army – boys for 3 years, and girls for two. Some of the them look so young that it is startling at times to see a baby-faced girl, with long, manicured nails and carefully maintained make-up, dressed in fatigues, dragging a giant backpack (and I mean ENORMOUS) and a rifle hanging casually off her shoulder as if it is a chic purse of some sort.

·       Israelis are as bad drivers as the Ukrainians are. Maybe even a little worse. ‘Nuff said.

·       Israel is EXPENSIVE. Like, major expensive. A weekly supermarket bill with no frills will set you back around $300 for a family of three.

·       Israelis are the nicest people – if you need help, they will stop whatever they are doing and insist on telling you everything you ever needed to know to solve your problem, or go solve it for you. Or hand you an umbrella on the street in the pouring rain when they see you walking miserably, clutching an expensive leather purse, trying to protect it from the elements. Or bring you a bottle of wine for Rosh Hashana and invite you to their house for their family dinner after having met you only twice.

·       They are also incredibly generous with their private life – whether in the street, in a restaurant, on the plane or the train, or the beach, anywhere you go, they would be talking loudly on the phone or to each other, or call out to each other across a packed bus, making sure everyone around them is included in whatever is going on in their life right that moment. Since I do not speak the language, I, sadly, cannot partake in the excitement, but I sure feel part of it.

·       THE FOOD!!!! I am yet to have a bad meal in Israel – whether it is the humus stand close to work, or an absurdly expensive modern restaurant, everything is simply delicious and fresh.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

The end of the Roadtrip - from Portugal to Belgium

Portugal was a dream. Our fabulous friends G and T opened up their multiple gorgeous homes for us for the next few days and served as tour guides through the streets and foods of their marvelous country. After a sumptuous lunch in the lush garden of their generations-old house in Porto, we were taken for a long stroll through the old town, gracefully set against the banks of the Douro river. Not so graceful a mere 20 years ago, old Porto apparently underwent some serious community investment by the city and today its azulejo-adorned old merchant houses are absolutely spectacular and equally spectacularly expensive. We had sundowner drinks at the elegant rooftop of Espaco Porto Cruz, across the river in what would appear to be still the city of Porto but was in fact a whole another city of its own, Vila Nova de Gaia. The view was so stunning that I ended up taking over a 100 pictures, possibly persuaded by the copious quantities of porto I consumed there. After a later dinner of endless grilled meats in a local restaurant, we capped the night with a midnight walk to the  Farolim de Felgueiras to see where the river joins the Atlantic ocean (farolim = lighthouse). It was a surreal sight, walking into the warm night, watching giant scary waves crash into the large stones along the stone pathway leading to the lighthouse and the many lonely fishermen throwing fishing rods in the utter darkness with some sort of glowsticks at the end in the roaring surf (what fish in their sound mind would even swim in these insane waves let alone decide to bite on a luminescent bait??). We found the whole sight exceedingly funny (humor possibly fueled by above-mentioned porto drinking).

The next day we took a beautiful walk through the Parque da Cidade do Porto, a giant park in the western part of the city, which borders the Atlantic. The ocean was surprisingly not entirely freezing and a short walk on the beach took us to the neighboring town of Matosinhos (it is truly surprising how easily one leaves Port without realizing it). Matosinhos has always been known as a fishermen’s town, and so naturally, we sat down to lunch with two giant heaps of sardines. That night, we drove to Felgueiras to G and T’s ancestral farm stone house, and we got transported into Portugal’s glorious past for I have seen houses like this only in movies and magazines. The rows and rows of vines in front of the swimming pool were just the cherry on top. 

We had dinner at Restaurante Santa Quiteria, which is one of those places where they only ask you what type of meat you will eat, and the rest is left in their hands.  Once we finalized the choices of fish and lamb, a procession of appetizers, salads, and side dishes began streaming onto the table. We were asked about wine – white or red? Yes, we said. The while was Vinho Verde. The red - who knows. But both were local and fabulous. I think we drank 4 bottles, but I am not sure. Understandably so. We ended our Portuguese adventure with a day trip to Guimarães, a lovely medieval town with well-preserved buildings and an impressive hilltop, 10th-century castle, the tickets to which were illogically sold elsewhere so we ended up not going inside.  Instead, we chose to eat and drink some more in the main square while watching a lovely wedding unfolding at the obligatory church in the square.


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A few pounds heavier, we left beautiful Portugal and flew back to Paris, where we retrieved the car and set off for our next destination, Lille, to visit another good pair of friends. Yet another delightful medieval town tracing its origins as far as the year 620, Lille offers the curious traveler classic European cathedrals, sophisticated shopping (an opportunity utilized by the Diplomat and yours truly), and many enticing restaurants. After the Diplomat purchased a pair of chic light-blue pants, which, according to our friends, highlighted his butt (yes, our friends are French and such comments come naturally to them), we indulged in a pile of delectable Moules-frites, or mussels and fries, and (on the advice of our friends) something called The Welsh, which was a food coma-inducing combination of cheese, beer and ham and certainly not for those watching their waistlines. Of course, we also had a bottle of hearty Côtes du Rhône to go with it. We packed a couple more pounds in France as well…

We were ready for the last leg of our journey - Belgium! Used to hours-long drives of hundreds of kilometers, it was somewhat underwhelming to drive only a couple of hours to Brussels instead. We set off in pouring rain with the intention of stopping for lunch in Ghent, a supposedly particularly delightful medieval town but, unless we intended to swim to lunch, it was not going to be feasible or particularly pleasant to sightsee there. So, on we forged towards Brussels - a city we once saw about 18 years ago. 

After checking into the hotel, the sun finally decided to show up, which was fantastic as we were about to go and have dinner with one of my best friends from college, whom I had not seen for about 10 years or so. Annoyingly, he looked exactly the same - I guess this is what a leisure life of a bachelor does to a man. A mere three (4?) bottles of house wine later, it was as if we had never parted and, after the Diplomat waved a white flag and went to bed, we continued gossiping about old friends, loves, and acquaintances. 

The last stop on the road trip was Antwerp. Admittedly a bit of an unorthodox tourist spot, the reason we had to go there was that we had to finally drop off our car at the State Department warehouse and logistics center there. You see, when State Department diplomats travel across the Atlantic to their next assignment or come back home, our earthly possessions get packaged in giant containers and shipped to Antwerp’s warehouse. From there, they get re-distributed to their final destination, whether by boat, train or truck. When we evacuated from Kyiv, we left the vast majority of our stuff in our apartment there, with zero notion of whether we were ever going to see it again. We drove away in our own car, loaded up with what seemed like a reasonable amount of clothes and cats at the time. Luckily, we recently learned that our luggage was successfully packed out and sent to Antwerp in anticipation of our move to Tel Aviv, our next assignment. 

As far as the car was concerned, we undertook to drive it to the facility ourselves and hence our roadtrip final destination. You should know, the facility in Antwerp is something of a myth - not many of us have ever seen it and we all speculate what happens there, filled with awe and trepidation. Well, we saw it! Antwerp’s port is a maze of warehouses and logistics companies, and we watched un awe giant metal containers being moved with magnetic cranes around. 

In order to prepare for the car drop-off, we had to reorganize the absurd amount of suitcases of varying sizes (7!) we still lugged around since after Antwerp, we were going back to Brussels to board a plane back to the United States. While still in Brussels, we dropped off the vast majority at the airport hotel we were going to stay a few days later prior to flying away and arrived at our Airbnb in Antwerp with just two, TWO, suitcases. Which was lucky since the apartment was on the 4th floor of a no-elevator building.  That was fun for the Diplomat. 

With the car gone, just like that, our roadtrip was over! The bottom line - 5,125 kms, $865 spent on gas, and $286 on tolls. 15 countries in 30 days. Would we do it again? The jury is still out but I find it remarkable that we are still married and still quite like each other.

That night, we met our good friends Y and A for a dinner in downtown Antwerp, with the promise to go dancing that weekend with them. Filled with excitement to see this fascinating city over the next two days, instead, I fell quite ill with severe strep throat. The only thing I did the next two days was lie in bed in the small Airbnb apartment, walk feebly across the street for Chinese dumpling soup, and binge-watch terrible reality shows. Despite my best efforts to get better by Saturday night, no one went partying, which was most unfortunate - dancing in a Belgium nightclub has been an obvious bucket list item for me. Instead, I was feeling better enough to walk to old town for a dinner of rabbit stew at De Bomma’s in Antwerp’s delightful old town.

The next morning we caught the train back to Brussel’s airport, checked in the hotel and spent several hours re-arranging our possessions into the multiple suitcases. Our trip was capped with a dinner at the house of old diplomatic friends of ours from Sweden, who happened to be posted to Brussels and had us over for home-made pizza. It was surreal and comforting to end our epic trip by visiting friends we had not seen for three years and to feel like we were just together last week - the hallmark of a great friendship.

The next morning we flew back home.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Road trip Part 4 – from Italy to Portugal

After a fairly uneventful drive through Italy’s highly confusing highways, we discovered with no small amount of excitement that we are going to go through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, the 20th longest road tunnel in the world at 11.6 km! As we drove towards the tunnel, through the incredibly windy lower Alps, we saw signs advising that crossing the tunnel will take about 2 hours. We ignored them, especially since google maps said otherwise. Except that it did take two hours. Two long, beautiful hours spent crawling up to the tunnel, which only had one lane open and allowed only one car every few minutes. The crawl did allow us to gaze at the stunning mountain from various angles as the road twisted and turned a lot, but how much can you really stare at a mountain until you get bored? Thankfully, there was a Belgium car in front of us with two pre-teen kids, who provided further entertainment by walking around their car, running, hanging outside of the car windows eating giant sandwiches, making faces at us, waving and sticking their tongues, and just being two fun Belgian kids.

And then we were finally at the finish line, with the entrance of the tunnel alluringly close, calling us in. All that charm and excitement were gone, however, when we learned that we needed to pay 50 euros to ride through the damn tunnel! These were the most expensive 11.5 kms I have ever driven. Inside it was, you know, just a good ole tunnel. With that, we were already in France.

A quick overnight stay in Macon, and we were headed towards Paris for the next few days. Ah, Paris, Paris, Paris! The city of lovers, croissants, fashion, and expensive museums. What did we do? Instead of enjoying, all the glorious city had to offer, we had to find a notary to sign another power of attorney for the purchase of the Montenegro house since it seemed that the previous one missed an important point. We topped the day with a lovely dinner in the Latin Quarter where we met with an old friend and drank wine until the wee hours of night.

When we planning this leg of the trip, we realized that the French Open was already underway in Paris. Tennis fanatics that we are, the Diplomat immediately proposed we spend a day at the stadium, watching whatever we can catch. Since it was rather late in the game (so to speak), we only managed to get ground tickets, which meant no access to the main court with all the famous players, mostly watching doubles games and walking around and checking out the stores and the side courts. We did end up watching a couple of fun games with former professional players, something called Legends Trophy. After a hilarious match courtesy of Mansour Bahrami, who had us laughing hysterically with his court antics, we also saw an aging but still delightfully agile Martina Navratilova in a stoically serious female doubles game. Secretly bored after one set, we left to buy Son an absurdly expensive tennis hat.

In Paris, courtesy of our amazing Brazilian friend L, we were lucky to stay on the famed Avenue Montaigne, one of the most exclusive and luxurious arteries in the capital, connecting Champs-Elysées to the Alma Bridge. Any self-respecting haute-couture brand is located there, and her apartment building is right above Bottega Veneta. Posh or not, it did seem that some of the tenants in the building had strong feelings against some of the designers on their street because we saw an odd notice in the elevator, asking the tenants to please stop throwing trash and dog feces (!) on top of the famed designer’s store awning… Have they no shame!

A quick walk on the street reveals lines and lines of fashion revelers, standing in long lines to go inside and stock up on precious luxury goods. Their tenacity is remarkable and so it the depth of their wallets, apparently, judging by the prices I saw in the windows. I just hope no one throws dog poop on them from the fancy buildings above. Or at least, if they do, that I am around to see it!

Done with the gorgeous Paris sights, the Diplomat and I got ready for the next stop on our trip – Porto, Portugal to visit our fabulous friends T and G. This time, we were flying, so we had to leave the car for a few days at Orly airport, along with all of our suitcases inside. Since the trip was already costing quite the pretty penny (in case you were wondering), we found cheap, off-airport, parking in a nearby village. It was run by a pair of affable French folks and was in essence a sort of a farmland with a giant barn, where you could park your car and then they would drive you to the nearby airport in a rickety van whose back door had to be tied with rope. Clearly miscalculating the time it would take to get back to the airport from there, we arrived at the parking lot with precious little time to spare.

One of the big differences between the Diplomat and me is that he likes to go to the airport Indian style – several hours ahead, preferably the previous night, and overnight there with dry snacks packed from home. I, on the other hand, cannot stand waiting around too long, even if I have a club lounge access, and prefer to arrive as late as possible. In this case, we had followed my philosophy a little too close for comfort and ended up running like mad people inside the terminal, being those annoying people who apologize to everybody while cutting the line, saying that their flight is boarding.  All our progress was, however, stopped by a pair of sadistic security guys who insisted that all my liquids should be indeed put in plastic ziplock bags and proceeded to dig through my suitcase with the diligence of a phlegmatic mole examining a burrow (I told them I do not believe in plastic and that only made them go through my carry-on even slower while looking at me without even a hint of a smile). Convinced that we had missed the flight (it was past the boarding time noted on my boarding pass, we threw everything back into the small suitcase and ran towards the gate like a pair of convicts who have just escaped prison. Only to arrive at the gate where (naturally) no one was boarding, and everyone was just picking on their phones. We made it successfully over to Porto.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Road trip Part 3 – From Montenegro to Italy

Our next planned stop was Split (the idea being not to drive for more than 5-5 hours per leg) where we had rented a lovely Airbnb apartment next to the port and all the nightlife. Google maps said it would only take us about 5 hours, so we hoped to be in time for a late and romantic Croatian dinner. After a dizzying drive through the Montenegran mountains north of Budva, we finally approached our next border, which I sincerely thought was Croatia. Turns out, we were about to enter Bosnia and Herzegovina, which came as a utter surprise to us and made us frantically re-examine the route Google had provided. Turns out, it was there all the time, if one would pay attention. As a side note, we had been trying to buy an actual roadmap of Europe throughout the trip, but so far had been unsuccessful – are roadmaps even a thing these days??

At the Bosnian border, a gregarious border policeman told us to go buy insurance. When I pointed out that we would literally be driving through his lovely country for about an hour, he pensively told me that it is for the better. Somewhat perturbed, I went to the barrack he was pointing at, to find an elderly grandma napping on a cot, surrounded by cooking pots and pans, a gas grill, and a small desk with what appeared to be a desktop computer. Clearly annoyed that I woke her up, she told me that indeed she is the insurance lady and asked me for 40 euros. I was scandalized at the cost and refused to pay. She shrugged and went back to sleep. With no alternative, I had to concede and handed over my hard-earned money for probably the most expensive insurance I had ever paid.

Once we entered Bosnia and began driving, I understood why it was all necessary and probably so costly. In Eastern Europe, where there has been a fatal road accident, people often put some sort of a memorial – whether it is a commemorative stone with a picture, or a cross, or something else to mark the deadly spot. During our hour or so drive through Bosnia, I counted 9. 9!! 9 road accident monuments. And just as I was beginning to ponder the significance of those, a decrepit old rusted car suddenly sprung from behind us (I was obediently observing the 50 km/h speed limit) and began taking us over just as a big shiny SUV was speeding merrily in the incoming traffic lane. Clearly, it was not possible to take over, so the old car began breaking violently, which helped no one but caused me to scream obscenities for several minutes as I saw in the rear-view mirror that it was sort of lurching around the road and forced the giant SUV off the road, climbing up the steep hill next to the road where it finally stopped, smoke coming from its hood. The wretched old car did not miss a beat or even slow down and rather than stop and go to see if the SUV folks were ok or, perhaps, apologize, it sped up as much as it could, finally took me over, and raced away into the Bosnian lands. I was glad I bought that insurance…

At the Bosnian/Croatian border, both border guards were sitting in the same booth, chatting in a most friendly manner and simply passed our passports to each other for the respective exit and entry stamps. How neighborly!

We made it to Split around 8 pm, and found an amazing parking spot right outside the building. Cleverly, you can pay your parking with an app in Split, which made our stay there for three days a much easier experience, especially given how cheap the parking was. The next day was spent sorting out multiple little administrative details that surround a month-long roadtrip and the purchase of a house in Montenegro, after which the Diplomat and I took to some touristing. The Diocletian's Palace, dating from around fourth century AD, is breathtaking – a fact that was not lost on the producers of Game of Thrones, who upped and filmed a whole bunch of Season 4 there. The Diplomat made me climb the steep bell tour, which caused me no little amount of anxiety given my fear of heights. Also, the stairs are enormously tall and super narrow, which makes for a particularly adrenaline-driven climb.

The following day, in search of romance, we took a ferry to the neighboring island of Hvar. After enduring for an hour the drunken shouting and profanity of a merry group of British youth on the ferry, we spent a blissful hour walking through the quiet streets of the enchanting island and ended up having a seriously overpriced and underwhelming lunch on the main square. With not much else to do until the return ferry would come in a few hours, we decided to take a water taxi to yet another, microscopic island, part of a group disconcertingly called Hell’s Islands (Paklinski otoci). I don’t know about hell, but the island was lovely and had a fabulous beach bar called Carpe Diem, where we spent the next few hours napping and sipping various interesting beverages with things in them. I highly recommend spending a day there, although I can imagine the crazy crowds of inebriated youth during regular summer season.

It was time to move on and our plan was to push-off for the six or so hours until our next stop in the Veneto area in Italy as early as 8 am. Naturally, it did not happen like that at all. I woke up early in the morning with a silly yet pesky affliction, which unfortunately necessitated medical intervention. The nearby pharmacist explained in a mixture of English and Serbian that there was a doctor just up the road, which sadly was not true unless that doctor was very carefully hidden. I found a private clinic on Google maps and we sped off that way only to find out that it was a cosmetic surgery clinic, which maybe I do need at some point in my life, but this was not it. They recommended another such clinic, which should be able to help and we sped off that way next. It turned out to be a radiology, something I decidedly did not need. The front desk lady told me that the healthcare system in Croatia is complicated and that there were no private clinics I could go to, which did not help my mood. In the end, I went to the emergency room, where a very attractive young doctor saw me promptly and took care of things efficiently and quite cheaply, I might say.

We were finally on the way to Vò, Italy. After a brief transit through Slovenia, we arrived at an enchanting centuries-old stone house in the hills of Padua region, where we planned to spend the next three nights. We were greeted by the energetic owner, who turned out to be a Russian émigré married to an Italian. The house was surrounded by rolling hills of vines and trees heavy with ripe cherries, 13 cats and 3 dogs, and 31 hens and one rooster, all of which atop a stunning vista towards the setting sun over endless rows of vines down the impossibly green hills. It was breathtaking! Inside the giant room with vaulted ceilings and wooden beams, we had a basket of fresh eggs, which were promptly consumed over breakfast the next three days. Each morning, the indefatigable host would bake pies, strudels or tiramisu and insist that we eat all of them.

A day trip to Verona resulted in a pair of very expensive and handmade leather boots, on the Diplomat’s insistence who spotted them as we were sipping refreshing cocktails in the city of Romeo and Juliet. A small town, Verona nevertheless packs an impressive offering for the architecture lover, including the kitschy purported house of Juliet. Typical cobblestone medieval streets host the full complement of international luxury brands and local boutiques. Ristorantes, trattorias, osterias, pizzarias, pescerias, enotecas, and tavolas entice the hungry and, frankly, not so hungry pedestrian. Gelato galore. We indulged in it all!

On our final day in Italy, we drove to visit old friends nearby and they took us to yet another gorgeous Italian town, nestled in the foothills of the Alps, called Bassano del Grappa whose covered bridge can easily be mistaken as one of those in Florence. True to its name, the town is well-known for brewing grappa, an old, deadly favorite of mine, and the oldest grappa distillery in Italy is indeed found there. After a sumptuous lunch at the “best” local restaurant, Ottone, filled with grappa, wine, and food so good, I forget the names of any dishes, we bid the beautiful country goodbye and prepared to drive north to France on the following day.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Leaving Ukraine – Road trip Part 2 (Bulgaria to Montenegro)

After two lovely days in Sofia, we set off for our next destination – Montenegro. You see, the Diplomat and I have reached a mid-life crisis point and have become obsessed with the idea to buy a vacation home in the tiny Adriatic country. Nope, we have never been there before. And no, we do not know anyone there. But we had heard stories AND seen pictures of stunning mountains and sea vistas. What more can one need to commit to buying a whole house, right?? So, with this insane idea in mind, we had contacted a (very patient) real estate broker in Budva and asked her to arrange several days of viewings of houses for us. We were convinced that would be enough to acquire our dream vacation home.

We left Sofia after dropping off Son for a three-day cultural trip with his new school in Sofia. We dutifully attempted to engage with some of his new teachers, and peek in the gym to see the classmates, but the eye-rolling youth summarily shooed us away, appropriately embarrassed by our deep interest in his private, 13-year-old affairs. So, with nothing else to do, we took off on the next stretch of our roadtrip, only to get a frantic call from Grandma 30 mins later telling us that we had forgotten to leave the Silly Cats’ passports (yup, cats also get passports to travel internationally) with her. She graciously agreed to come pick them up as we waited for her in a dusty parking lot on the outskirts of the city. Two hours later than originally planned, we were finally on the road, facing around 650 km to Budva.

Traveling by car internationally can be a lot of fun. You get a lot of puzzled looks by border police when you cross into Serbia from Bulgaria, for example, carrying American passports and driving a car with a diplomatic registration from Ukraine. Also, stuffed with 37 suitcases of various sizes and a case of wine. At least, there were no cats this time. In essence, at each border we had to explain our origins, our jobs, our purpose of travel, discuss the situation in Ukraine, and listen to various border police thoughts on the war as I brightly would inevitably conclude – “But it will be OK because Ukraine will win!” While Kosovars were deeply sympathetic based on their own history, the large Serbian customs officer rolled his eyes and lost all interest in checking our luggage.

Another fun game is what stuff you will be asked at each border and whether there would be a border at all! For example, crossing into Kosovo (where we would spend a total of 2 hours on the highway before going to Albania), we had to buy a one-day car liability insurance for 10 euros, which I suppose made terrific sense. While I went to pay, the Diplomat spent his time chatting with the agreeable border guard, pretending to understand his nonexistent English. Typically, when you get to a border crossing you first exit one country (and get the exit stamp in your passport), crossing through a sort of a “no-man’s land” and then line up to enter the other country (and get an exciting entry stamp). Exiting Kosovo at the next border crossing, however, we discovered that there was no exit booth at all; rather, we were already at Albania’s doorstep! The Albanian police were extraordinarily polite, wished Ukraine good luck, and did not even ask us to buy insurance.

Serbia’s highways were superb, Kosovo’s towns and architecture were all new and modern, and Albanian nature - breathtaking. Several Red Bulls and hundreds of kilometers later, we decided to spend the night on the Albanian coast, at an enchanting beach resort town called Shengjin (no, that is not in China). Given that it was mid-May, it was still rather out of season and we were the only guests in the shiny modern hotel (I think that they had to turn on the water and electricity especially for us because other things like towels and TP were definitely missing). The night was topped with probably the best meal of the entire roadtrip, in a romantic beachfront restaurant called Detari.  In a mixture of gesticulating, rudimentary English, and Google translate app, we managed to order a bunch of seafood and astonishingly good Albanian wine for a concerningly cheap price. Two hours later, stuffed with various sea critters, wine, and undeniable romance, we were told that no one takes credit cards, but not to worry, there is an ATM around the corner. I sent the reluctant Diplomat to fetch money while I tried to teach myself various Albanian words from the menu and finish the wine. When 20 minutes passed, it struck me that he wasn’t back yet but I did manage to learn how to say shrimp (“karkaleca”) so I remained in high spirits. Eventually, he came back and confirmed my suspicions that the ATM was not around the corner at all, rather around a kilometer away. I tried to impress him with my newly acquired Albanian knowledge but I could tell it didn’t have the desired effect on him. We slept very well that night.

The next day, we drove on a dazzling highway through the steep, green mountains connecting Albania and Montenegro, and finally made it across the border. Two more stamps in the passports, a little more chit-chat on the Ukrainian situation and we were on our merry way through the coveted Montenegran hills towards Budva. There were no more glistening highways. Instead, we dove into the hills and their hairpin turns, trying not to faint every time a local car would suddenly careen toward us from the opposite direction from behind a sharp turn at 80 km/h! And then we finally saw the sea below us and it was all worth it! The view of the turquoise water, surrounded by the lush green of the trees, and topped by the cloudless, impeccably blue sky was something I thought reserved for tropical islands. The steep mountain backdrop would make even Hawaii jealous.

After an hour, we made it to our aparthotel and were ready to buy houses left and right.

Montenegro developed as a vacation spot a mere few years ago and is still deeply into the developmental stage, judging by the million construction projects around. Most of the hotel space is actually serviced apartments in modern new buildings with swimming pools and gyms and kids’ rooms (of course), ideally within a walking distance from the beach, although that is a bit of a stretch concept depending on how much and how steep you are willing to walk. In addition, the lush hills above the towns are home to many old and new houses, some with incredible views of the sea below. Which is what we wanted.

Three days of seeing house in various stage of building or disrepair and we had chosen THE house. Perfectly perched on a steep hill, engulfed in fruit trees, rose bushes and high grass, it opened a breath-taking vista of the Adriatic from its many terraces. The price was more than right and we were ready to buy. Naturally, it was too good to be true. This is Montenegro, a young country with even younger laws and a mess of urban planning, and it soon became clear that a small corner of the house was illegally built on what could one day be an international highway according to the city plan! Not willing to gamble on future infrastructure madness, we went on looking and found house number 2. Since we only had a couple of days left there, we spent a warm Friday afternoon in the stunning city of Kotor signing a lengthy power of attorney for our broker to compete the transaction on our behalf, hopefully soon. With all this work done, we were ready to relax a bit with our great friends who happened to arrive that evening from Germany to join us for a weekend Montenegro fun.

The next two days were spent eating, drinking, and exploring the old cities and beaches of Montenegro, with an amusing incident on our last night. As we settled in a lovely beach-side restaurant in the picturesque town of Petrovac, I perused the wine list and asked for recommendations. The condescending waiter pointed to the most expensive wine on the list (65 euros, which is beyond crazy there), which I politely declined and asked for a 22 euro local wine. With clear deprecation in his face, he went away and brough the wine. An hour later, I noticed it was NOT the wine I ordered but the much more expensive version of the same, which was around 40 euros or so. When finally the bill came, I pointed this little difference to the waiter, who (correctly) pointed out in turn that we did drink the expensive wine after all. I gave him one of my most murderous stares, and we eventually settled on a price somewhere in between. Apart from this silly moment, our impression from Montenegro is that it has some of the nicest, kindest, fun people ever! Crossing fingers for that house now.

By the end of the weekend, it was time to go and we packed our million suitcases and left for Croatia.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Leaving Ukraine – Road trip Part 1 (Poland to Bulgaria)


After more than two and half years working in Ukraine, and another three months working across the Polish border, the Diplomat and I have completed our assignment in Ukraine. An assignment like no other, marred by a global pandemic and brutal war. This is not how we wanted to leave. The emotions are too high and too raw to express here, so I will simply say that we have left physically. Mentally, we will remain in Ukraine until the war is over.

Our first task upon departing was to drive to Bulgaria to see Son and Grandma and to offload the two Silly Cats. (To catch you up on the past 3 months in one sentence – since the start of the war, Son has been in Bulgaria with Grandma, going to school, and the Diplomat and I, along with the Silly Cats, have been holed up on a hotel in Poland).  Our fully loaded car - 4 big suitcases, 2 small ones, one box with wine, three plastic bags with random stuff, one purse, two Silly Cats in carriers, one litter box in tow, and a giant tennis bag – was the envy of any self-respecting nomad caravan. Our route would take is through Slovakia, Hungary, and Serbia before crossing into Bulgaria:

Any ambitions we harbored about making it in two days were quickly dispelled by the two bleating cats from the back seat, who would meow in remarkable unison every hour or so for 10 minutes straight after which would again fall into irritable sleep. As a result, we overnighted in Hungary’s Kecskemet (mostly because I enjoyed saying “Kecskemet” every five minutes) and in Serbia’s Belgrade.

In case you wonder how one drives around with two Silly Cats, it is easy. For one, they hold their bathroom needs and refuse to eat. To test that theory and show my humane side, at a rest stop in rural Slovakia, I took the vehemently meowing Emotional Cat to the bathroom, and unpacked his litter box, which he scoffed at and went on the inspect the suspicious spots on the walls. After unsuccessfully trying to cajole him to use the litter, he was promptly and unceremoniously brought back into the car and the experiment never performed again. It seems that most hotels nowadays allow pesky pets to stay along with their owners, so we would unleash the beasts in the hotel room, set up the cat food and water in the bowls, pull the litter box from the giant trash bag into which it was packed, and put some sand in it. In one хour, all cat business would be done and the two silly creatures would be chasing each other comfortably all around the hotel room but mostly in the bathtubs.

In Belgrade, we stayed at the spectacular Metropol Palace, which features an equally spectacular spa. After driving around 1,000 km, we decidedly enjoyed a swim in the glittering warm pool, with a brief visit to the wet sauna and the ice room. The night was appropriately capped with a dinner at the Madera restaurant, in whose beautiful and cigarette-smoke filled garden we sampled Serbian rakia, and ate cevapi and a giant pleskavica. The next day, the Diplomat was stopped by an amused Serbian traffic cop for speeding quite a lot above the speed limit but then let go with a smile and a reluctant admonishment not to do it again. Penitent, the Diplomat crossed the Bulgarian border and promptly got stopped for speeding AGAIN by an equally amiable Bulgarian cop. Which is all very odd given that, generally, the Diplomat drives like a 75-year old lady. It may have been the bleating cats…

We got to Sofia without much further incident and spent two happy days with Son, Grandma, and the Silly Cats who broke only 2 porcelain things in Grandma’s house by the time we left. We are eternally grateful to Grandma for agreeing (not particularly enthusiastically) to care for the frisky beasts while we continue our gallivanting around Europe for the next one month. Our next destination – Montenegro.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Eat, Drink, Walk, Sweat, Repeat in Tbilisi

A long weekend looming in the distance, and Son away with Grandma, the vaccinated Diplomat and I thought it would be a neat idea to go somewhere in an attempt to pretend that all was like before. There were several perfect flights leaving on a Friday night and coming back on a Monday night – Lisbon, Prague, Tallinn, Helsinki – a dizzifying list of fabulous European capitals. The world, well, the EU, was our oyster! Except that we are still in pandemic restrictions and none of these places actually allow tourists, vaccinated or not. So much for that. And then suddenly I had the brilliant idea to look east and find the practically perfect flights to Tbilisi, Georgia! I guess my excitement was catching, because our fabulous friend Z, upon hearing what we were up to, decided to join us on the trip. I did not know it at the time, but Z is my spirit travel animal. I honestly have no idea how we have ever traveled without him before!

The trip started really well. The airport in Kyiv is about 25 kms from downtown, and it usually takes about 40 mins to get there, which increases to an hour and a bit during Friday afternoon traffic. Cleverly anticipating this, and counting on stopping by the VIP lounge to grab an early dinner and glass of bubbly, we left a whole lot earlier than usual (much to the constant consternation of the Diplomat, I am one of those people who always leaves at the last moment to go to the airport since I detest waiting aimlessly there, so leaving early was a big deal). 15 minutes later, we dove into interminable traffic. It turned out that the Kyiv municipality had waited until Friday peak traffic to begin an enormous reconstruction of one of the key bridges taking folks towards that part of town where the airport is located. And not only that, but it decided to couple that with a profound road construction of the entire highway leading there, cutting 4 lanes to one. After some creative driving (I am pretty sure at some point, the cab driver drove through the fields), two hours later, disheveled and highly irritable, we burst into the airport with about 20 minutes to spare to boarding. I am a planner. If I had decided that I would go to the lounge for a light snack and bubbly, then by golly, I WILL go to that damn lounge and have my (sad looking) snack and bubbly. And so I did. And I even packed a spare (sad looking) sandwich for the plane, just in case. All of that in 7 minutes! Ha!

3 hours later, we descended into the balmy night air of Tbilisi, to discover that Uber did not function at the airport. I understood why when we were asked for the equivalent of $20 to drive the 15 minutes to the hotel – it was called a “curfew price.” You see, it turned out that Georgia had recently introduced a night curfew of 11 pm, which meant that everyone had to be back home by then. We arrived at 11:20 pm. Curfew taxi price it was!

We arrived in style at the majestic Sherton Metechi Palace and headed for the reception desk, hungry, thirsty, and most excited to begin our culinary journey in famed Georgia in our upgraded hotel suite. Not so much. We were coolly informed by the desk lady that the bar is closed, there is no room service, and our only option to get food is to order it, using a phone app. Mike drop! After we made it patently clear just how immensely disappointed we were (the Diplomat can be quite unpleasant when hungry), the poor woman allowed us to order KFC on her phone, and brought us some contraband beer to the room with it. M-m-m, finger-licking good…

The next morning, we set off to explore the beautiful city under the blazing sun. Since we started at 11 am, we soon felt like we should nosh on something to tie us over to lunch. So, nosh we did, coupled with a few glasses of fresh, homemade rose. Then we killed a couple of hours checking out architecture, until it was time to lunch in style at the magical Keto & Kote. Perched on a high street in old town, the restaurant has incredible food and fantastic view. Few bottles of wine later had us taking an afternoon nap at the hotel. We had to prepare for dinner, after all! Dinner was much simpler, at a wine store aptly called 1000 Vintages. It seems the place has two locations and we ended up in the more underwhelming one, without a full-fledged restaurant but still serving amazing meat platters. Meat and wine. Hello! We went through a rapid 12-wine tasting only to deduce that neither of us felt strongly about the traditional Georgian style of wines (they are kept in clay pots, which leaves a distinctive aftertaste). We did feel very strongly about the ones that were done in the classic style and to prove it, bought ourselves a whooping $50 bottle of red for dinner (that is expensive for Georgia but we were feeling reckless after tasting 12 wines in under 10 minutes). I don’t remember much of it though since, well, you know, the 12 wines…

The next day Z said that he would very much like to explore the local public market and buy some spices. We spent almost an hour meandering through the classic Eastern European market filled with ageing babushkas (which actually means old grandmas, not headcoverings) and outstanding produce, while sweating profusely in the rapidly heating day. One thing I will say about Georgians – they are the most loving, friendly, welcoming people. We were offered tastings of pickled vegetables, nuts, honey, spices, breads, by numerous smiling old ladies and gentlemen without asking anything in return and refusing to accept any money for anything. They were delighted to see a real Indian and even more thrilled to learn that were American. In the end, we decided on a particularly fun stall at the far end of the market where (we imagined) the spices smelled even better. After forcing us to taste all 115 of her spices, the portly lady insisted that we eat her sulguni (local VERY salty cheese) and then she whipped out soft, delicious white bread to go with it. Clearly delighted at the sight of us with cheeks stuffed with

sulguni and bread, she brought out a large box of salad which was apparently her own lunch and insisted we finish it all, while cutting more and more bread. Her cup of joy was not full, however, until she pulled out a plastic bottle of home wine from the fridge and filled out a giant plastic cup of wine for each one of us, including herself. For the next hour, we ate a kilo of cheese, two breads, a salad, and drank 2 liters of a most delicious, light white wine. 

Somehow we made our way to Fabrika, an old abandoned factory, which has been converted into an eclectic office/cultural/eating/drinking space. After a lunch of ramen, we rolled back into the hotel for a postprandial, dreamless nap. Dinner time found us in old town, traipsing the shady, leafy, cobblestone streets and peeking into old courtyards, heavy with clotheslines and children playing soccer. Dinner was had in the ridiculously romantic Café Littera, which had equally ridiculously bad/slow service and rather pleasant menu by an award-winning chef.

Cafe Littera

A visit to Tbilisi would not be complete without going to the beautiful sulphur baths in the middle of old town. So, the next day, in 40 degree heat, we decided to go for a soak in the, um, hot baths. What no one tells you is exactly how hot the sulphur water would be. Which is A LOT. It took some guts to get inside, and it was impossible to stay longer than 5 minutes or so before jumping out of it screaming, read as a lobster, and diving into the cold pool next to it. We also got scrubbed and lathered with cheap soap to finish off the experience. We came out in the sweltering heat weakened and squeaky clean, jumped into a cab and rode to the other end of town in search of the best hinkali. They were!

The rest of our stay was more walking, more heat, more gorgeous architecture, smiling and helpful people, and more delicious food and wine. We capped the weekend with a long and saturating visit to a wine store, which allowed us to bring back 15 bottles of wine and cognac. What a great country!