Saturday, February 20, 2016

Romania Part II: Getting Around

I know it was a while ago now, but here is the long anticipated part 2 post of my trip to Romania! Tom and I got a rental - a 4-door smart car. I didn't even know they made those. Our very first stop was a gas station so I could buy a map as neither of our phones worked we were going to have to navigate old school. 

I feel like navigating was part reading the map and part intuition. As we were leaving Sighișoara we saw one sign in the city center pointing in the direction we wanted to go. Then there were no more indicators. Our map didn't help as it didn't have enough detail for the city streets. I knew we wanted to go north west so we drove for about 20 minutes in that direction and we finally saw a road sign saying we were on the right path. It's kinda like just roll the dice and hope you're on the right road.

 A few times we ended up on some sketchy roads. You can see from the map legend something called "other roads." On the map it looked to be a short cut. Then we turned onto it:

We had no idea how long it'd be a dirt road. Looked like they were doing construction on it as well. It was a big relief when we finally saw pavement! Luckily the dirt road only lasted about a mile. Not sure the smart car could take much more of it.

One of the things I was surprised about was the amount of carts and horses on the roads. Even on the main "highways."

Also the massive amounts of stray dogs. At night you could hear them barking. They were everywhere! I have no clue how they get their food, if they just hunt in the wild, or if people leave out scraps. Just dozens upon dozens of mangy strays.

As you entered each town it'd have the town name and speed limit. As you left, there was always a sign that said "Drum Bun" or "A good journey"/"Farewell" And they'd have the town name again but with a slash through it meaning you were no longer in that town. (I tried to get a picture of that too, but taking pictures while moving is hit or miss)

Navigator Selfie!
As I said, our map didn't have details for the cities. The first night we stayed in Brasov, a large city, and luckily drove around until we could pick up some free wifi to figure out exact directions to the hotel. The second night we stayed in Arefu the town next to Vlad's mountain fortress. It's basically a village and definitely no free wifi. We arrived shortly after dusk and followed road signs around the best we could, trying to find our hotel. We couldn't see many street signs. Nobody we stopped to ask directions spoke English so we just kept pointing to the address on our confirmation sheet and then would try driving in whichever direction they would point. After doing this about 5 times and driving to a dead end dirt road, we finally stopped at a small shop. There were 3 people inside, a woman behind the counter and 2 men just hanging out inside chatting. I went up and had the same conversation I had had 5 times before:

[me pointing to the address] "Directions, lost"

Then the woman and men all look at the paper and discuss it for about 5 minutes. Every now and then looking at me and saying something in Romanian, of course I had no idea what it was. Finally the woman behind the counter says, "Deutsche?" I assumed she was asking if I could speak German so I replied "no." Then, "Española?" ooh YES. Or "Da" in Romanian. (I had looked up yes, thank you, and cheers in Romanian because those are the important words to know right?) So then one of the men makes a phone call. I'm not 100% sure what is happening, but I kind of assumed they were calling somebody who could speak Spanish. About 4 minutes later a new man shows up who does indeed speak Spanish!

"Hola! Necesito direcciones por favor!"
It felt so nice to finally be able to say something that somebody would understand! I pointed to the phone number on the reservation and he called it. A minute later everyone in the shop makes an "ohhhh" of realization sound so I know they now know where it is. He asked if I could understand directions in Spanish, like izquierda, derecho (left/right) which yes I can, but I think he could tell that probably still wouldn't help us so then he tells us to just follow him in his car and he'll drive us there. So Tom and I hopped back into the smart car and followed this lovely Spanish speaking Romanian man to our hotel. (There were a lot of turns and dirt roads so there is definitely no way we would have found this place on our own!)

The hotel was actually a family's home and they had converted the top floor to 5 hotel rooms. The family also didn't speak much English but they did have teenage son who is taking English in high school and he did a lot of translating for us. They also had wifi, so between their son, google translate, and miming we actually communicated semi-well!

We arrived shortly after 7pm and were starving but there was no way we were leaving the house as we would never find our way back. The wife asked if we needed anything and we rubbed our bellies indicating we were hungry ha. So she made us a LOVELY dinner.

The loaf looking thing in the middle was polenta with cheese and sausage and OMG was it delicious. She also made pork chops with some pickled peppers and french fries. And for dessert a baked quince. 


After dinner they asked if we'd like to watch a movie, so we watched Step Up Revolution. It was nice because the movie was in English with Romanian subtitles. It was one of their son's favorite movies because he liked to dance so he had seen it a number of times already. The husband was also the town priest. It was dark when we arrived so we couldn't see it then, but the church was right across the street. He was really excited to tell us things about the village and Romania in general. He'd basically type it all into Google translate and then hold up his phone for us to read. It was a really lovely evening with their family. Although at the end we did feel a bit like the Griswalds when they stay with the random German family they thought were their relatives. 

The next morning they made us a fabulous breakfast (which we definitely needed as we climbed 1480 stairs!) 

We also had to drive 2 towns over to find an ATM as we had run out of cash to pay for the hotel and nobody accepts credit cards.

Such colorful money!
Luckily the son came with us to help navigate. He also came with us to climb the stairs to the castle and he knew the person who sold tickets so we got in for free! WINNING. It was definitely an adventure getting around Romania. We took quite a few roads-less-traveled and it made this trip unforgettable.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


While we celebrate Mardi Gras in the states with King Cake, in the UK they celebrate with Pancakes (and also call it Shrove Tuesday). Brits eat both American style and the thinner crepe style for Shrove. A lot of restaurants have deals on pancakes, and basically everything is pancakes, pancakes, pancakes. (And you know I love my carbs so yay, yay, yay!)

NOMS. My friend and I went to a breakfast joint called The Breakfast Club in Shoreditch (a very hipstery part of London I saw a lot of fantastic beards and flannel.) I got the Pancakes with Berries and they put this great cream on top. It was SO GOOD...I could only finish 3 of the 4 pancakes. 

They did have a challenge to eat 12 in 12 minutes. I don't know how anybody could do that. I also suspect they make the challenge pancakes slightly thicker. We watched one woman fail. These two guys ordered theirs just as we left. I doubt they finished.

While I did miss finding the baby in my cake, I enjoyed celebrating Fat Tuesday in a new way this year. And just because this is the best scene in Cabin Fever:

Monday, February 8, 2016

Super Bowl UK Style

Well, it's mid afternoon and I am just now slowly starting to be productive and recover from the Super Bowl. You'd think it's because like Peyton, I drank too much Budweiser last night. No, my slow recovery is due to the fact that the Super Bowl didn't even start here until 11:30pm. With the help of lots of soda, I managed to watch pretty much the whole game (only drifted off a bit in the 4th quarter!) and got home a little after 4am. For somebody who doesn't even follow football, I'd say that's a pretty good effort.

I mean we all know I watch for the commercials and the snacks. I went to my classmates flat to watch. There were 3 of us and we probably had enough food for about 10 people. (I may be still in a food coma.)

I made guacamole for the first time ever, rice krispie treats, peanut butter swirl brownies, and Crack Dip. The dip was probably the biggest hit, its a layer dip (recipe after the jump) with lots of cheese and as my mom says "It's called crack for a reason." I don't think my classmates had ever had a layer dip before so I was pleased to pass along an American staple.

Making food here is always an adventure. Between searching for ingredients and converting recipes to metric/celsius, there's a lot of extra effort involved. The UK is not big on Mexican food and I went to 4 different stores before I found a can of refried beans. Cilantro is called coriander. Cream cheese is called "soft cheese." Marshmallows are hard to find, they come in small bags, and most of them are white and pink (and I think slightly strawberry flavored?) 

I halved the brownie recipe. I couldn't find semi-sweet chocolate chips and ended up buying out the store of their tiny bags of milk-chocolate chips. No Nestle Tollhouse here! 

In my new neighborhood I'm not close to a big grocery store so I'm just going to smaller express markets. This is part of the reason the selections aren't the best. Luckily between me and my classmate we tracked down everything we needed and it was all delicious. 

We even streamed the game through CBS so we could watch the American feed and see the commercials. Some of the American references flew by my classmates (I was the only one who laughed at the Kung-Fu Panda old Budweiser spoof) but all in all it was a pretty enjoyable evening. And this morning I had left over Rice Krispie Treats for breakfast because hey, it's a cereal! 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Oh Hey There

Well, I kinda let the ball drop on this. But don't worry - I have a ton of excuses! While the first 2/3 of my first term were footloose and fancy free, it all caught up to me for the last third and I found myself at school for hours on end completing group projects. Who would have thought I'd actually have to do work in grad school!?

But after late nights at Uni, ordering all different kinds of Domino's (including the one with hot dogs in the crust which was weird and I did not like it) everything got done, some of my finals were taken, and I actually did pretty well grade wise on it all. Then it was off to Germany/Switzerland for Christmas Markets, and then back to the States for the holidays! Then of course while I was home I was all:

And it. was. fabulous. Then it was back to the UK for New Years Eve and right into studying for the rest of my finals. So now the new term has started and I have a saa-weeet schedule (no Monday or Wednesday classes!!!) So hopefully I'll be much better at updating regularly. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Romania Part I: Dracula

As I've stated before, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. And what better way to spend Halloween weekend in Europe than driving around Romania touring all of the Dracula sights?? You may or may not know that Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, got his inspiration from a real life person: Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, and later Vlad the Impaler. Dracul was a name Vlad's father took on after being invested in the Order of the Dragon in 1431. It translates to "the dragon" or "the devil."

I didn't know too much about him besides he impaled a lot of people and lived in Transylvania, but my friend Tom (who planned the trip) had read a few biographies and was quite the expert. We saw Dracula Untold together last year and even then he could tell me which parts were based on historical facts (his wife threw herself off the cliffs from their fortress in the mountains when she was incorrectly informed that he had died in battle and in his teens he was held hostage by the Turks). While the movie was never going to win any oscars, it was entertaining and also has Luke Evans and Dominic Cooper in it (both Brits that I love!) 

Way better looking than Vlad, though maybe I just hold a soft spot for him from the Hobbit movies.... Anyways, like I said before - Tom planned out our trip and it was great, we hit all of the big Dracula hot spots. We flew into Bucharest Friday morning, rented a car, and drove to the Monastery where Vlad is said to be buried. 

The street is named after the Monastery.
The Monastery is on an island and you have to cross
this very attractive metal bridge to get there. 
Walking up the gravel path.
Inside is beautiful. It's covered in frescos of different
biblical scenes.

Standing next to his "grave" though as Tom pointed out,
his actual bones are probably somewhere totally different.
From there we drove to Bran Castle which is right outside of Brasov. Many people think Bram Stoker based Dracula's castle off of Bran Castle. Apparently Vlad also stayed there at some point? We arrived too late to actually take a tour of the castle, but we did get to walk around it. The castle hosted a big Halloween party the following evening on actual Halloween which I'm sure would have been epic - though maybe not as epic as our Halloween night ended up being (deets in a later post)

We stayed in Brasov that night and the following morning made our way to Sighișoara the town where Vlad was born. The old part of the city was all up on a hill which had spectacular views. You had to park at the bottom and walk up a bunch of stairs (prep work for when we visited his fortress in the mountains and had to walk up 7 times the amount of stairs) to enter that part of the city. The house where Vlad was born is now a restaurant so of course we ate lunch there. Most of the tourists there were Americans and I even overheard one of them saying "Of course it's all of us like-minded people who are going to be visiting Dracula's home town on Halloween!" Right you are random-American-person. 

Definitely not going to miss his birth house with that bright
yellow exterior!
3 Stars! 
Definitely pandering to the tourists. 
The clock/watchtower in the town square.
Standing in front of the Vlad statue.
A mural they had on the wall in the restaurant.
Another very large bust of Vlad they had in the room (or room adjacent)
in which he was born. We had to pay 5 RON each to go inside and they had a man
dressed as Dracula in a coffin pop out to scare you. We were hoping for something
more.... historical, but I guess the tourists like to pay for their Dracula! 

"Dracula's Kiss" cocktail.
From Sighișoara we traveled through the mountains to Peonari Castle, Vlad's mountain fortress. (This is where his wife jumped to he death, and as you can see it is waaaay up there.) We arrived at dusk so waited until Sunday morning to climb the 1480 steps to the top. It had some spectacular views.

After traipsing the 1480 steps back down we headed for our last Dracula site before leaving Romania. Târgoviște is where the royal palace was. Now it's just ruins but still pretty cool. Vlad had a large tower built that you could walk to the top of and get some pretty good views. The tower has been kept up well over the years unlike the rest of the palace. We literally just did a fly by, drove there, walked around for 30 minutes, and then headed to the airport, so we didn't get to explore too much, but it was a good place to end our Halloween Dracula weekend!