Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Snow and Christmas Cookies

The first snow of the year. The Sunday before the Sunday before last. 
Last Wednesday, I spent about 5 hours baking cookies in order to bring some Christmas cheer into my apartment. And also, I have a lot of free time. Baking proved to be quite an adventure, because I have EXTREMELY limited tools.

My measuring cup and only bowl of decent size.
my teaspoon (i.e. a small spoon)

my tablespoon (i.e. a normal spoon)
my cookie sheet (i.e. a pizza pan)
This meant that I had to convert my recipes from US volume measurements to metric weight, and that any size smaller than a teaspoon was guess work.
I also made my own sprinkles because the grocery store only had one color and they were hideous and expensive:
A few drops of food coloring in sugar.
Mix and allow to dry over radiator 
All things considered, the cookies turned out quite good. Especially the first two batches -- the sugar cookies and the spritz. 
A mini-disaster struck however with the snickerdoodles. After they had been in the oven for maybe 4 minutes a burning smell began emerging from the oven. I opened the oven to discover that the cookie dough had dripped through the holes in the pan and burnt on the bottom of the oven. I had to take them out and put foil underneath. But by that time it was too late and there was smoke billowing out of the oven for the rest of my cooking. And then even the second batch turned out flat and crunchy. Not bad, but not right. 
Nonetheless, it was fun and the cookies turned out on the whole well. 
Note puny Christmas Tree in the background...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


We left Brasov around noon the next day, and took a train down to Bucharest. When we arrived at our hostel, it was already getting dark. It was a dreary rainy sort of day, and it took us forever to walk to our hostel which was pretty far from the metro stop they suggested we get off at.
It was also in a... interesting neighborhood. This was one of the houses on the street. Also note the sketchy apartment complex to the right. The hostel itself was brand new, and it looked like they had bought one of these abandoned houses and fixed it up. It had high ceilings and crown molding. The beds were in what were probably once dining and living rooms. It was an odd mix of elegant and...hostel. There were unframed cheaply printed pictures on the wall, and a room with at least 8 beds in it can only be so fancy. 
One of the people staying in our room was an american truck driver in his 40s who claimed he was in Romania to find a wife. Later he was replaced by this guy who spent his entire time there in bed on his computer. Hosteling is always full of characters.
The first night, we didn't do much. We went to McDo for dinner (it was gigantic! They had a special area for Birthday parties and a separate cafe  -- it is easily the biggest McDo I've ever been in in my life). Then we walked down the "Champs Elysee of Romania". This huge boulevard was specifically designed to be a "challenge" to the Champs Elysee of Paris and was designed to be some nominal amount of meters longer just to show them up. I didn't really get what the point of that was, but Tristan suggested that what the communists were trying to say was something like "Your Champs Elysee is only for the rich. It is based on commercialism. Ours is lined with housing for the people."  Anyway, I'm sure that today these apartments are some of the most expensive in the country.

We ended the night by playing a pirated version of Monopoly in the hostel's abandoned common room. 
The next day we saw all the sights of Bucharest which there weren't that many of, to be honest. 

The national library. It's clear that Romania has fully embraced capitalism.

The People's Palace - or today the House of Parliament. It's one of the biggest Parliament buildings in the world, or something. There are pictures of me with this building, but they must have been taken with Tristan's camera, and I still don't have those photos

This disturbing and befuddling monument is the Revolution Square where one of the key events of the revolution took place (I guess that might be obvious)
We had an early dinner at a popular Romanian restaurant. Normally you need reservations, but not when you eat at 5. It was really delicious. I had a sausage and bean soup dish, and Tristan had chicken schnitzel. Then we went back to the hostel to rest our extremely tired feet. We had intended to go back out but we never did. We did make one small trip out to the small store around the corner for water -- which was pretty nervous-making because the neighborhood's general abandonedness. We paid for our water through the window because they don't let you in after a certain time and we made it back without incident.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bran Castle and Rasnov Fortress

Random aside that has nothing to do with this post: Today, I am alone all day because my roommates went to Nancy for the weekend and also Tristan is taking the LSAT so I have literally no one to talk to for 7 hours today. I was originally planning to join my roommates for the day. But because of the train times, I would have had to pay 40 euro for 5 hours in a town that doesn't sound that spectacular. I'm going to try to productive today, unlike my last two off days. I'd like to run, but my weather app says it's -3*c (26.6*f) which sounds awfully cold (on principle, I'm a Fahrenheit person. I think it makes a lot more sense for measuring weather (and not just because I understand what it means better). But when it comes to cold temperatures, I am more accustomed to Celsius.)
Now back to our regular scheduled programming (which involves overly detailed descriptions of my vacation):
For our second day in Brasov (Halloween), we took a day trip as planned to see castles in the region. We originally planned to take a tour with the hostel, but A) one of the castles was closed and B) it was actually quite a bit more pricey than taking the bus.
So we ask the hostel for directions on how to get to the bus station and they tell us we need to take bus 6 or whatever and that we can catch it across from the theater. So we go there, buy a ticket, and then wait, and wait. We begin to get impatient and nervous. Is this really where this bus comes? Maybe it doesn't come here? Why isn't it coming? So finally, we decide we will walk down towards McDo to borrow their wifi and make sure we are at the right place. We *know* the bus will come as soon as we are too far away to have a chance to catch it, yet we walk away. Thirty seconds after we pass what we marked as the point of no return (ie. if we are past here, there is NO way we will make it back to the bus stop in time to catch the bus) we see the bus up ahead stopped at a light. We make eye contact, then we turn around and sprint towards the bus stop as quick as we can. Making it there just as the bus arrives.
We made it the bus station with little other event:

Note the things hanging from the ceiling of the bus. Those are air fresheners and there were like 5 bazillion of them  hanging from the ceiling. 

One of my favorite parts of Romania (and the trip in general) was the many bus and train rides. Rather than a means to an end, the views outside the window were an attraction unto themselves. The countryside was beautiful: mountains, trees, plains, valleys and fields. There were huge expanses of land that looked much as they did hundreds of years ago. We saw villagers in horse drawn carts, horse drawn plows, shepherds standing in fields with there flocks.

I guess these would be the Carpathians.

When we first got to Bran Castle, we weren't sure initially if we wanted to pay to go in the castle, because castles are generally pretty unspectacular inside (I mean generally it's just a bunch of ridiculously ornate furniture and furniture is boring.) So we meandered through the trinket sellers. 
We made a sweet doggy friend. We fed her these (pretty nasty) chicken flavored  Lays. She seemed to like them quite a bit. 

"Clever" trinkets 
We eventually decided to go in the castle, because I wanted to use the restroom and though there was a public restroom in the trinket area, it was underground and frankly terrifying. Also, it was difficult to see the castle well without paying to go on the grounds. I think it was about 4 dollars each or total to go in, or something not very high. We used our student IDs to get the reduced rate and had our IDs scrutinized like they were forgeries (which reminds me of that time I went to a bar Chico just before we left, and had them think my ID was fake). 

At this point, Tristan hasn't the slightest idea why I'm taking this picture.

This is why. She was also sweet, though considerably more skittish then the other dog. Tristan spent at least10 minutes trying to woo her. Before, after, and while I used the distinctly not terrifying restroom.
Inside, the castle was worse then expected. It was sparsely furnished with furniture we later learned was only from the early 20th century. Bran Castle is funny because it seems to have become well known as "Dracula's Castle" - that is that it was the castle of Vlad Dracula (commonly known as Vlad the Impaler) or something like that. But the truth is that he never visited it, and there is no records to suggest Bram Stocker (author of Dracula) even knew it existed. Of course, this doesn't stop trinket sellers from trying to milk it. 
Nor did it stop this. I wonder how Queen Marie would feel about her furniture being displayed next to this atrocity .
On the other hand, paying the admission fee was well worth the views from the castle which were spectacular. 

And this is the castle as viewed from the grounds

After that, we took a bus to Rasnov. The trouble was that by the time we got there we were famished because we hadn't eaten anything (aside for some nasty chips) since breakfast. Rasnov, it turned out, was rather lacking in places to eat, but we eventually stumbled upon a completely empty restaurant and decided to eat there. It took over an hour for us to get one single, rather small, pizza and get out of there. Which was made extra horrible by the fact that they were playing a music video channel on the TV and we had to here song after song of some of the worst dance music ever created by man. By this time, it was getting dark. We started climbing the hill to the fortress, but the path was this meandering street that didn't seem to be any hurry to get us up the mountain. We very quickly gave up on getting up to fortress and decided to just head back. So Rasnov ended up being a bit of a fail.
In fact, one of the best pictures I got of the fortress was on the bus ride to Bran. 
That night, after having KFC and relaxing a bit. We went out on the town a bit for Halloween. The first place we went was this "Rock and Roll" bar that played metal. As we were walking in, we were approached by a Romanian guy who heard Tristan speaking German. At first, we weren't sure if he worked at the bar, or what. But it turned out he was just a friend of the owner. He talked to us the entire time we were there. His name was Chris and he was quite a character. After that we walked around the city a bit more, and then went back to the hostel. It was quite a pleasant day.