Gearing Up for Eurocamping (or “Hotel Room in a Bag”)

I won’t lie.  Flying to Europe with all the gear necessary for camping is not exactly convenient.  But it makes family travel a more affordable possibility and adds to the sense of adventure.  And it is possible.

We decided long ago that hotel rooms for a family of 5 were out of the question and investing time and money before you leave will mean that you are prepared and save quite a lot on food and lodging in Europe.  Our family has camped in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and The Czech Republic and have found that campgrounds are plentiful and easy to locate.  Websites like Eurocampings.co.uk include lists of amenities and customer reviews, and GPS coordinates make finding even out-of-the-way sites easy to locate.  Campgrounds range from adequate to luxurious, but almost all have the basics of sanitary, dishwashing and laundry facilities.  Campgrounds at the higher end are more like resorts and may include fresh baked goods, a store, cafe and recreational activities.  We certainly aren’t roughing it in most cases and see our tent as a place to stay – not the main attraction.  Days are spent exploring interesting sights and nearby cities.

More restrictive baggage allowances mean that we have to pack light, but we’ve found equipment that makes it easier.  Here are some of our more recent discoveries.

TENT

One word of advice – invest in a decent tent.  We started years ago with a cheap model from Target and were sorry when we had to deal with torrential rains that turned every stitch hole into a mini fountain.  Our tent is a North Face Mountain Manor 6 and although it’s not ultra-light it’s manageable and fits into a large duffel bag .  Remember, your tent is your home and the investment is about the same as a couple of nights in a hotel.  The Mountain Manor is roomy with standing room and includes many nice features such as vents at top and bottom, a waterproof rain fly and a good-sized vestibule.  The best thing is the easy setup!  Two people can easily set this tent up completely in less than 10 minutes thanks to a handy clip system and color-coded tent poles.  Check out this nice review from another satisfied customer.

North Face Mountain Manor

North Face Mountain Manor Tent

SLEEPING BAGS/PADS

Go for lightweight sleeping bags and pads, especially when you can only carry a few bags.  We have several different kinds and have been happy with the REI brand.  Ok, it’s not like sleeping in a luxury hotel with adjustable beds but you’ll live, and for us the rewards of travel are worth the sacrifice.

DUFFEL BAGS

You can’t beat this 32″ expandable rolling duffel bag for the money!  Found at Wal-Mart, this $14 bag is sturdy and fairly easy to maneuver.  Soft sided and easily collapsible, these bags are great for limited trunk space.

SPACE BAGS

This year we discovered Space Bags at Target and they were a revelation!  Using either a vacuum hose or the roll-up method, the handy valve really works and makes it easy to triple your space.  We even used one to compress a particularly fluffy sleeping bag.

CAMP KITCHEN

We have 2 micro camping stoves that are compatible with Campingaz, which can be found at campgrounds, supermarkets and hardware/garden stores across Europe.   Small and easy to use, a stove and a fuel canister will allow you to cook simple meals or reheat convenience foods.  We also brought along our trusty mocha pot espresso maker for morning coffee and a small saute pan and cooking pot.  Throw in a thin cutting surface, wooden spoon, spatula and a Swiss army knife (with can opener) and you’re all set.  Plastic cups, plates and silverware are easy to locate once you reach your destination.

CLOTHING

Pack light and take less than you think you need and remember that most campgrounds have sinks for handwashing laundry as well as washers and dryers.  This year I discovered lightweight Magellan Islander pants at Academy and think that these pants/roll-up capris are stylish, practical and a great buy at $19.   Eddie Bauer’s ultra-light First Ascent product line is ultra-light and quick dry with simple lines and a nice fit.  Bring just a few t-shirts and buy others as wearable souvenirs.  And think layers for cooler climates.

Breakfast at Langenwald

Camping Breakfast

Plan ahead, invest in a few good things, buy a few useful souvenirs and enjoy the trip!

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Apples and Cinnamon

This time of the year I feel anticipation.  The fall is more like my New Year as we prepare for school, buy supplies and get ready for a year routine.  But I also feel the light change, days getting shorter and wait for cooler evenings even though I know they’re at least a month away in this warm southern climate.  And even though they’re now available year round, I look forward to apples.

I used to think that apples were quite ordinary and Red Delicious still does not delight my palate.  Later I discovered Braeburns and Pink Lady and then tried various new varieties for baking when I lived in England.  Texas is not apple country and I have yet to branch out to more exotic heirloom and local varieties found in other regions.  We’re not growers, but I appreciate those who are working to preserve the old-timers with their distinct personalities, flavors and unusual names and pass on ancient grafts and cultivation practices.  As with all produce, the best is here and now – local and in season.  And organic is even better!

Like those who celebrate with Beaujolais Nouveau the third Thursday of each year, I have my own annual ritual.  Each autumn I buy a gallon of Louisburg Apple Cider, produced just a few miles from where I grew up and made from Missouri apples, and I celebrate autumn and the taste of home.  Its flavor is unforgettable, and I’ve shared it with others who have been equally pleased and surprised by its intense apple flavor.

Apple pairs perfectly with cinnamon, which is now readily available but was once highly treasured.  Centuries ago, cinnamon was considered a gift worthy of offering to kings and gods and the spice was praised in Song of Solomon.  Cinnamon and other spices were transported from Southeast Asia to the port of Alexandria and then to Rome.  Valuable and rare, spices shaped history as nations fought to dominate markets and gain access to Asia.  Cinnamon is still anything but ordinary, with its ability to awaken the senses and to heal with its anti-viral and anti-microbial properties.

The aroma of apple and cinnamon, whether baked in a pie or warmed in mulled cider, stirs feelings of autumn leaves and crisp blue skies.  They’re comfort foods with an ancient history.  For me, they are simple and satisfying and they smell and taste like home.

apples and cinnamon

apples and cinnamon

The Art of Baking

When my first daughter was a baby, I tried my hand at baking bread.  I loved the smell of bread in the oven, loved the taste of a warm slice spread with butter.

Homemade Bread

We didn’t have much money for cookbooks then, and didn’t have the internet with its millions of recipes.  So I went to the library, checked out books on baking, and set to work.  My first attempts weren’t too bad, but the results were irregular.  Sometimes the dough didn’t rise well, sometimes the finished bread was dark brown and hard.  I tried white loaves, healthy whole wheat, and even attempted to make French baguettes.

I continued baking over the years, and then met my friend Carlo.  Carlo was Italian, and returned from visits to his family with olive oil his father had pressed and jars of tomato sauce from his mother’s kitchen.  Carlo’s family often ate pizza, and he told me how his mama made the dough for the pizza crust.  “She has the touch.  Not everyone has it, you know.”  I knew what he meant, and I listened carefully as he shared her dough-making secrets.

Every Friday I made pizza.  I had cheated for a couple of years and used a kit bought from the grocery store.  The pizzas were fine, but I wanted to have the touch like Carlo’s mother.   I followed the directions that had been given like a gift to me.  The ingredients were simple, but it was the technique that counted.  Week after week I mixed and kneaded and baked, and as I worked with the dough I connected with generations of women all over the world who made bread with nothing but flour, yeast, water, salt and oil.  With the same ingredients I learned to make pita bread and foccacia, and with extra eggs, milk and butter I braided challah.  After many years of practice, I, too, had the touch.  I learned that I had to feel the dough and know what it needed.  The process became so familiar that I didn’t even have to think.

Now I am someone’s mama, and I bake bread.  Two of my daughters have already left home, and sometimes they miss our weekly tradition.  Every once in awhile on a Friday, one will call and ask, “Are you eating pizza?”  She may even tell her friends, “My mother has the touch.”  Not everyone does, you know.

Challah Bread

Homemade Challah

Ode to Dodoni

One thing I really like about Houston is its abundance of international food.  Not only are there thousands of restaurants to choose from, but there are also many specialty shops, bakeries and grocers such as Hong Kong Supermarket, Viet Hoa and my favorite, Phoenicia Specialty Foods.  A trip to Phoenicia is an inspiring culinary adventure.  The smell of spices, busy aisles full of people from many countries and floor to ceiling selection make the store feel more like a bazaar.  Phoenicia has a great selection of produce, meat, deli and bakery items and specializes in European and Middle Eastern imports.

Some time ago I sampled several varieties of feta and fell in love with Dodoni.  The guy behind the counter told me that it was an excellent choice and that it was produced in the village of Dodona, which is located in an especially beautiful and sacred area of Greece.  I have no idea if it’s true, but I’m a sucker for a good story and can tell you that Dodoni feta is delicious wherever it’s made.  It has a mild but complex taste that adds flavor to salads, omelettes,  sandwiches and many other dishes.

Dodoni Feta at Phoenicia Specialty Foods

French, Bulgarian, Greek, Domestic… what’s a girl to do?

This summer we discovered a Turkish Kebab place off the main square in the university town of Ulm, Germany.  What a find!  I had an incredible flat bread vegetarian sandwich stuffed with fresh cheese and vegetables, which inspired my version below.

Feta, Etcetera

Top a Greek pita with your choice of the following:

  • Hummus
  • Cubes of feta cheese
  • Shredded lettuce
  • Chopped tomato
  • Diced bell peppers
  • Chopped onion (red or sweet yellow)
  • Cucumber (I like baby or Japanese cucumbers)
  • Pickles
  • Julienned radish
  • Grated carrots

Serve and enjoy.  You can combine the leftovers in a bowl and marinate with your favorite dressing for a nice salad for your next meal.

Feta Etcetera Pita

From the Vault: Re-Viewing Old Favorites

In addition to indulging in some fun first-runs at the theater, we’ve been digging out old favorites for another viewing.  Here are a few that I enjoyed the most!

Sinfully Delicious

Chocolat

Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp star in this charming fairy tale about mysterious Vianne – a sensual chocolatier who seems to know exactly what each of the curious villagers needs and desires most.  A romantic story of magic and transformation, this cinematic confection is a delight and may bring out the gypsy in you.

Dead Poets Society

A deeply moving story of a teacher (John Keating, played by Robin Williams) who challenges his boarding school students to explore new perspectives, live fully and find their passion, this film is an invitation to viewers to re-engage and seize the day.  With brilliant performances by Williams and the students, Dead Poets Society is both inspiring and tragic and gets me every time.  Carpe Diem!

Shakespeare in Love

A witty and compelling story combined with fabulous costumes and great performances from an all-star cast…what’s not to love?  The film begins with a young Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) who’s not exactly at the top of his game, but his genius is re-ignited by the intriguing and unconventional Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) whose passion for the theater is an exhilarating inspiration.  A blend of love, comedy and a clever script make this a real pleasure.

High Fidelity

Loved Nick Hornby’s book, and while the movie is different (the setting change from London to Chicago does change things), it always makes me laugh.  John Cusack is great as an underachieving music geek who is seriously challenged in the relationship department, and the role of Barry – the obnoxious but hilarious music snob – was just made for Jack Black.  I dare you not to laugh during the “Walking on Sunshine” scene and Black’s musical talent may surprise you.  Watch this movie if you’re down in the dumps and feeling sorry for yourself or just need a good laugh.

Bird Watching

Here’s another “400 Words” essay I wrote awhile back.  I’m also submitting it in response to this week’s writing challenge:  “From Mundane to Meaningful.”

A funny thing just happened.  I was sitting here at my desk, trying to squeeze some inspiration from the scribblings in my little notebook.  My brain moaned in protest as I tapped the keyboard, and I waited for some jewel to drop from the sky onto my screen.

I looked through the open blinds and noticed little sparrows flitting around my yard.  They resembled dead leaves, grayish brown and fluttering from tree to fence to tree.  One bird was blue with an orange chest, the only color in a dull winter landscape.  Suddenly, a little sparrow flew right toward my window and hit the glass in front of my eyes.  The creature then took off sideways and hit another pane, and once again headed my direction.  Finally, it lighted on a very narrow space on the lower ledge.  Looking for footing, it clung to the screen, and I watched without moving, not wanting to startle it further.  I could see it breathing rapidly, and its chest quivering.  After a few minutes the sparrow seemed to calm down and its breathing was more even.  Another bird just swooped down, gave it a tap, and it flew off to perch on the edge of the gutter on the roof as if nothing had happened.

That sparrow was telling me something.  I watched as it hit the glass – three times!  The bird was like me, floundering one way then another, hitting obstacles left and right.  But then it found a place to recover, catch its breath, and regain its sense of direction.  The little sparrow then flew off again when the time was right.

I’ve never been like those ducks and geese that fly south for the winter in a perfect “V”.  There is no doubt of their timing or destination.  It’s something that they’re born with, that sense of direction.  They follow the leader in formation, never deviating from the plan.  I’m more like the sparrows. They migrate too, in well defined routes, and go with the flow to find warmer places.  But each bird has its own pattern and flies in circles and swoops and hops and waves.

I marvel at the geese with their strong wings flapping regularly, necks outstretched and head like the tip of an arrow.  They are so sure of themselves.  But I’m more delighted by the sparrows, weaving their invisible maypole ribbons just outside my window.

Hobo Eggs at the Paradise Cafe

Eggs and salsa.  Even though I’m now in the Lone Star State, for some reason those 2 simple ingredients transport me back to Lawrence, Kansas in the 1980’s.  Lawrence was, and still is, eclectic, original and fiercely independent.  A captivating crossroads, the town has a way of attracting people on their way to somewhere else and the pull is so strong that they never want to leave once they’ve felt its energy.

As I mind-travel back through time, the first stop is the then-popular (now-non-existent) Paradise Cafe.  In the beginning, I was one of the regulars that lined up on Sunday mornings and then I waited tables there (as a friend said, I always got the groovy jobs…).  Paradise was a dining destination any time of the day, but breakfast was special.  Popular favorites were Breakfast Enchiladas and Hobo Eggs – my versions below.

 Breakfast Enchiladas

serves 1

  • 2 corn tortillas
  • 1 tablespoon butter or oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup shredded colby-jack cheese
  • 1/4 cup sliced green onion
  • Picante sauce
  • 2 tablespoons low-fat sour cream

Heat up a large skillet over medium heat.  Mix together eggs, 1/2 cup cheese, half of the green onions.  Warm each tortilla in the skillet, place on a plate, spread with half of the egg/cheese mixture and roll up.  Butter or oil the skillet and carefully place rolled tortillas in the pan.  If some of the filling runs out as it cooks, just push it back in.  When golden brown on one side, turn over and continue cooking until tortilla is golden and filling is set and cooked through.  Transfer to a plate and top with picante sauce, cheese, sour cream and remaining green onion.

 Hobo Eggs

serves 1

  • 1 medium potato, diced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons picante sauce
  • 1/8 cup shredded colby-jack cheese
  • 2 tablespoons low-fat sour cream
  • 1 green onion, sliced

Heat  oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Peel and dice potatoes into small cubes.  Place carefully in the hot pan and cook until golden-brown, stirring occasionally.  One shortcut is to pre-cook the potatoes for about 2 minutes in the microwave to reduce cooking time and to make sure that the potatoes are tender.  Place cooked potatoes on a serving plate.

Fry eggs, place on the bed of potatoes, and top with salsa, cheese, sour cream and green onion.

Roll it back a few years before and I was a student looking for unique experiences on the cheap.  One Sunday morning a friend invited me to have brunch at a secret location.  This was no ordinary dining establishment – its location was known to a select few and each week a new name and theme determined the menu and decor.  The clandestine nature of the cafe enabled the artistic students running the place to avoid licensing and added to the word-of-mouth appeal.  We parked in front of an old building with apartments above a small shop and rang the doorbell to be admitted.  The sticker plastered above the bell identified the cafe as something like “St. Mary Magdalene of Sorrows Cafe” and we heard fiesta music as we climbed the wooden staircase.  We were shown to our table – a simple cardboard box – and took our seats on the floor.  Each table was topped with a cheap Mexican prayer candle and although the atmosphere was DIY it was cheerful and light.

The menu that day featured a few Tex-Mex dishes, and here’s one that’s easy and delicious and still brings a smile to my face.

 Hot Eggs

serves 1

  • 2 slices of whole wheat toast
  • 2 tablespoons of low-fat cream cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons picante sauce
  • Alfalfa sprouts

Toast bread and place on serving plate.  Spread each slice with half of the cream cheese.  Fry eggs, place on cream cheese and top with picante sauce and sprouts.

Cheap and cheerful and they’ll bring you blessings

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