Austria VII: Crossing the Border

I remember walking up the stairs from the basement at Conni’s family’s house. Sue and I were quartered there as was Aunt Laurie in another room. It was cool and comfortable for us and it beat the summer heat. I was heading up to join the others on the patio and I stopped short of the landing and stood for a moment. I had just turned 49 years old and here I was with my beautiful family 6000 miles from home with friends I would never have met were it not for a number of unforeseen events like the fact that our attempts at adoption failed. If we had succeeded, the chances of us having ever met Conni a foreign exchange student who came to live with us-and therefore her family-are slim to none.

I was in Europe-fabled and historic places I’d only read about were now brought into sharp relief as I walked over Roman roads, stood in awe before spectacular cathedrals and abbeys and saw history from a perspective I’d never dreamed of before. But now, we were about to cross the border that used to define the frontier of the west with that of the east. So much has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union-and now, the border between Austria and Hungary is nothing more than a sign on a road:


Two of our excursions led us to places most Americans never go. The first was Sopron (pronounced-“sho-pron”), Hungary. Rainer and Michaela had arranged for all of us to attend a two-day wine festival in Deutschkreutz, a countryside of rolling vineyards, lush and dense forests and really, some terrific wine. I was hired by Drink Me Magazine to write a profile on Austria’s wine-growing scene and since we’d done the Wachau Valley, with its stunning beauty, terraced vineyards and delicious white wines-Rainer wanted us to experience the Rotwein–or red wine festival, where even the kids got to sample some things, mostly non-alcoholic grape juice and the like.


The event is densely packed, by Austrian standards. For those of us Californians, it simply wasn’t that crowded though– if you’ve ever been to the Paso Robles wine festival or any of the Central Coast tasting events. There were no rooms available on the Deutschkreutz side of the border. So Rainer got us rooms in Sopron and we headed across the border to stay at Hotel Lover (umlaut above the o in Lover-pronounced more like loo-vah), a fine if somewhat cranky and settled establishment above Sopron proper.


It was a lovely old hotel with a basement swimming pool run by a very dour middle-aged woman who looked at you bitterly as you approached and ordered you to put plastic shoe coverings over your shoes. This was, ostensibly, to keep the dirt off of the wet tile. The practical effect, however, was that it made the floor about 30 times more slippery and dangerous and there were stairs everywhere. I chalked it up to one more thing you’d never find in the U.S. and probably an attempt to kill-or perhaps just maim-the guests that the dour middle-aged woman didn’t like.

Our first night there had some tension, I’m afraid. We Americans were, at this point, more worn out than we’d expected to be. Exhausted by the sheer gravity of the trip and hearing so many languages and simply not used to it all, we were a bit reluctant to join the others for dinner as they headed into town to see the Hungarian sights. This is a former communist country and the tensions that exist here as a result, the weak economy, the poor condition of the roads, the rather constant sense that the younger and older generations of this country don’t see eye to eye, is absolutely fascinating. It would have been great to see more of it–but we couldn’t muster up the strength to do it. So, while the Storers stayed behind to eat an unsatisfying Hungarian buffet at the Hotel’s restaurant, the Englisch family went off to explore Sopron.


I got into a bit of hot water at the restaurant because, unaccustomed to how things worked and completely unable to speak the language, I forgot to sign the check and have it billed to our room. No waiter presented him or herself in a timely fashion and tired as we were, we simply got up after dinner and headed back upstairs. When I came back down to the lobby later in the twilight of evening (it doesn’t get dark in summertime here until 9:30 or 10:00) to get some bottled water, I had an official finger wagging and an angry Hungarian restaurant host telling me, I think, what a bad customer I was. I apologized in first English and then German (Es tut mir leid)-but to no avail.

Back upstairs to our room where the hotel had BBC World News. We didn’t watch a lot of television, so it was nice to hear English so far from home. We all collapsed into bed and slept hard that night.


We spent a total of two nights in Sopron, the second being far more relaxed after a day of wine tasting, meeting new people with whom I’m still in touch at the Kirnbauer and Strehn wineries among others. The eight of us walked down from the hotel to a great little restaurant sitting amongst the trees as cool evening breezes rolled in. It was the perfect antidote to the previous evening and included a walk down to an even nicer hotel to see what we were missing. Of course, the nicer hotel had a higher price-tag too.

The second place we went after returning to St. Polten for a night was Fuschl Am See near Salzburg at an absolutely wonderful bed and breakfast–but that deserves it’s own post and so stay tuned for Austria VIII: Fuschl.


Chile Chili

I have not added up the photos and sound yet for the rocket launch. That’s largely because I’m lazy–or rather, I’m swamped with 100 other things and by the time I get to the computer, the last thing I want to do is….well….work.

So the weekend comes with Conni off in Hawaii for a few days with her foreign exchange group. Sue wasn’t feeling well today, so I handled meal preparation, though I admittedly didn’t handle clean-up. Aunt Laurie did that and Sue did a bit this afternoon.

Breakfast was scrambled eggs with veggies and cheese. Broccoli, spinach, carrots all mixed in with a nice scramble and a bit of cheddar topped with salsa and a dollop of sour cream. Coffee, too. Good stuff.

Lunch, which Sue didn’t partake of, was whole wheat tortillas topped with aforesaid veggies plus red bell pepper and mandarin oranges. I put down a bit of bbq sauce, a bit of cheddar and then the veggies. Top that with some turkey breast, crack some ground pepper over the top of it and drizzle a bit of olive oil. 400 degrees, 10 to 15 minutes and voi la.

All the while I was making lunch, I prepared a batch of the Superbowl chili-easiest recipe I’ve ever used, too. Olive oil in the pan with diced onions, shallots and garlic. Brown some lean ground turkey after the veggies are translucent and then add a jar of tomato sauce (or a can). From there, I go with a packet of chili seasonings because I’m easy like that. But you could go with chili powder and salt and pepper, I suppose.

From there, throw the mixture into a crockpot. Here’s the hard part for the purists and I feel your pain, I really do–though you were probably already a bit squeamish at the ground turkey rather than ground chuck or pork and the seasoning packet didn’t help you either. But I defend myself with the knowledge that my health has improved, I have dropped pounds and the fact is, this tastes yummy. As yummy as ground pork and all day prepared tomato sauce? Well–maybe not. But good.

OK, so where were we? Right-crockpot. So, the mixture in the crockpot is now the base of your chili and what you do is add a big can of diced tomatoes. Don’t forget that, it’s important. Add in a can of chiles and then the beans. Again, I know-the purist doesn’t allow beans in chili. But beans are really the healthiest part of this meal, the fiber being really important and if you do it right, it tastes good.

So, what’s doing it right? NO KIDNEY BEANS. I can’t imagine why anyone would eat them. Textured sandpaper wrapped inside tasteless cardboard, that’s the kidney bean. Don’t go there. This is three-bean chili and it relies on flavor. It’s all about flavor, the base of which was put down with the onions, shallots and garlic and built upon with chili seasonings and green chiles. Good stuff. So, a can of garbanzos, a fine bean with good firm texture. It adds a nice starchiness, without being overbearing. Then, a can of black beans. These guys bring flavor and color to the party and they’re awesome. Finally, in place of the dreaded and awful kidney bean, a can of white cannellini beans is in order. Don’t drain the beans, just put them in.

The directions I read called for putting it all on high for 6 to 8 hours, but I found that was too much. I put it on low for 5 hours and turned it up to high for the last hour. Serve with cornbread or whatever you’d like and it’s awesome. Perfect dinner. The beans add enjoyment for hours, too. Heh.

And that’s what I have to write about tonight, people. Chili. It’s a three-day weekend and I did a bit of work today. I have some writing to do and there’s church tomorrow–so that’s why I wrote this, you see? Because while the other stuff may bore you, it’s what I dream about. Speaking of which, it’s time to go do some of that now.


OK, so I blogged about wine…

Just back from a lovely trip north to San Simeon. We went with friends Randy and Janel and spent the weekend in a kind of wine and food hedonism. Just adults–took a break from parenting duties and stayed at the Morgan there on the beach a stone’s throw from William Randolph Hearst’s monument to himself.

I’m not inclined to write much about the wine, as much as I enjoyed it. For whatever reason, I don’t seem to want to blog much about wine in any real informative way anymore. I mean, Chateau Margene made some extraordinary wine-particularly the Grenache, which was heavenly and out of this world. But it was also $56 a bottle. And I understand why they charge that and I even bought a bottle of it. I don’t begrudge them that fee–but I’m also fully aware that it’s way out of my price range–and most people’s price range. Most of us don’t have $56 to spend on one bottle of wine. But frankly, they hand pick the clusters from the vineyard, then hand de-stem them. The grapes are processed in such a way that they go through two sorting tables, stems pulled by hand, crushed gently and then allowed an astonishing 40 months in barrel. That’s not standard for every wine, but it is for some of them. These folks are serious–and the wine is great. It’s phenomenal and they work hard to produce this wine and I will drink the bottle I bought on Christmas day with my family and be proud.

But it’s $56 a bottle. And I can’t buy more than one or two of those a year. If I’m lucky.

The folks there are very nice, too. It’s a beautiful tasting room and I recommend it strongly to anyone who heads to Paso Robles to taste wine. We went there right after we went to Opolo Winery. It was fun to go there as it’s owned and run by my friends Dave Nichols and Rick Quinn. Opolo made a name for themselves with their Mountain Zinfandel, a reasonably priced but luscious, juicy and serious Zin that comes in at 16.1 percent alcohol. Yet for all that booze, it’s balanced, food friendly and not hot. It’s an enjoyable drink. Everything we had at Opolo was good. We bought the Roussanne, a Rhone white which with Opolo does yeoman’s work. Quite simply-it rocks. Along with their blends, their syrah and all the other goodies–we sat on the patio and dined on a sausage platter with four different kinds of sausage as well as oven-fired goat cheese, fig and arugula pizza. Grand, I tell you.

Tablas Creek and their Rhone blends, Eberle’s Cabernet and this morning, a totally unexpected and surprise purchase of wines at Hearst Winery. Yes, that Hearst. Every wine was delicious and we were enamored. That was before we munched on Hearst beef and pastrami sandwiches.

Homeward bound this afternoon and a quick stop at Craig Jaffurs’ winery to pick up our shipment and do a quick taste. Scrumptious as always. Quick stop in at La Superica and all is…well….fat. Need to exercise. Need fruit and veggies.

OK. So I blogged about wine.



Days of Wine and Apples…

It’s been rather nice, actually. We decided to take breathers from our various schedules. We can’t and didn’t do anything extravagant–no overnight stays, no hotels–nothing like that. But on Saturday night, Shannon had a sleepover at the Navy base with a friend from her soccer team whose family lives on base, and so Sue, Aunt Laurie and I went to dinner at Michelle and Greg Kenney’s La Dolce Vita in Oxnard.

Greg was our neighbor when we lived in Ventura and I’ve written of them before. Michelle was his high school sweetheart and they reconnected after so many years. She’s the chef and owner and the food is spectacular. Simple, old world Italian food made with attention to detail. Michelle sat with us and we talked while we dined. Then, out came the port!

Good stuff, people. This was the Sangiovese Port from Sylvester in Paso Robles and I took this picture to get a view of the sludge on the side of the glass. It was unfiltered and delicious. There was also a syrah port that Sue like a lot and we got to sort of mix and match three different ports. Life is good when you know the owner.

Then, Sunday morning we went and got Shannon and pointed the car north from the Navy base to go up to See Canyon and Gopher Glenn to get our share of the fall apple crop. We bought some 20 pounds of apples, tasted a bunch of different kinds, stopped at Kelsey See Canyon Winery and ate an early dinner at Jocko’s Steakhouse:

Yes–all the beef, none of the atmosphere–or, perhaps, an overabundance of atmosphere in only the very best way. A slump-stone building with a 40 year-old interior and a helpful, but not overly so, wait staff who sees to it that the oak coals cook your choice steaks and meats to perfection. You get a relish tray and if you order salad, it’s iceberg lettuce, chilled–with possibly a hint of carrot and cabbage and loads of dressing. It may be unhealthier than the steak.

And it is glorious! Must. Go. Back.

It’s a busy time, gentles. Long hours-lots of writing and deadlines, Shannon’s schedule of nightly practices or confirmation, homework and friends. Sue is working part-time and running our home–it’s all a jumble. And it was good just to take some time to be ourselves and enjoy each other’s company.

Need to do that more often.


Weekend Update

Continuing to mend neck and shoulders–hopefully it will do so without serious medical intervention. Frustrating to have the ache and pain after five years. I injured it five years ago and it has, at times, acted up on me–but always goes away. Still waiting for this one to go away now, too.

Saturday morning after a harsh and sad Friday. The events in Colorado leave me with no response but the appropriate one as offered by David Gelernter.

Silence and prayer for all of those affected.

Tonight, Sue and I are attending a foodie celebration and wine dinner with a new acquaintance of mine, Sarene Wallace. Sarene writes about the culinary arts in various places, most prominently at 805 Living Magazine.

Should be fun, though I confess I’m a little intimidated. I’m less of a foodie than I used to be and I don’t always feel at home with the haute cuisine. I still appreciate good and quality ingredients and we do our level best to include those–Sue is making chicken kabobs with harissa spice and red pepper sauce on flatbread for an appetizer–but we’ve also found simplicity is our best friend–a good taco, fresh fish, etc.

It was a busy week full of assignments and next week promises much of the same, which is a good and happy thing. I’ll be writing for Back Stage Magazine this week after being contacted by them on an article up my alley–an NEA grant for local theaters is in the offing and I get to report on it. Should be a lot of fun…

That means that the weekend will be a bit of downtime and though it may not be much needed–it is much appreciated.




A New Wind

The deadlines started coming hot and heavy and I was busy these past couple of days. Nice to have a recuperative weekend now. Last night up to the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing with our great friends, the Streeters. Good show, good time and my friends, the Browns’ were sponsoring the evening with their Cantara Wines. Avail yourself if you have not–these are seriously good wines grown in Lodi–and made right here in Ventura County. It’s one of the few local wines I’ve come to really admire.

Planning a couple of trips north this summer and see when I can get off the ground and get there-Santa Barbara County, Monterey County, San Francisco and Mendocino are on the agenda as I do some more exploring of CA wines. It’s a real blessing to me to be able to live here where I do and work the way I work.

A few more wine posts coming up—got a few new things to explore and talk about–short for now.





Oh, gentles….a long week and a longer week–and even longer days. But enough about me.

There are two weeks of school left in my 21st year of teaching. Harder to believe is that I still rather like it. Sure–I’m kind of broke, but who isn’t?

I’ve had some deadlines this week, the biggest one dealing with some seriously fine folks called the Murillo family. Dr. Murillo and his family make tequila. And it’s not just tequila. It’s organic and sustainable tequila grown on the family’s ranch in Arandas, Jalisco.

Now, again-I’m writing this article for Ventana Magazine, so I can’t reveal the whole story here. But of all the spirits I’ve tasted, I cannot think of a better one. I’ve done scotch tastings, tequila tastings, limoncello tastings and a couple of others–I’ve probably tasted something like 20-30 different tequilas and none of them, not Don Julio 1942, not Patron-none of them–come close to what Dr. Murillo has accomplished. It’s simply the very finest tequila I’ve ever had and I imagine it will be for you as well if it’s your thing.

Liquid gold. That’s what Dr. Murillo wanted to produce and he seems to have pretty well accomplished that. What really warms my heart is that he’s done it by thinking about what’s best for the ranch, his employees and his customers. This wasn’t a question of wanting to make a buck–though I assure you, he will do that. It was more about continuing a family tradition of farming with the land and using the ranch that was left in Dr. Murillo’s family to do something that would honor that legacy while being beneficial for all involved.

It’s a great story and I was honored to be able to tell it. I hope I did it justice–and when it is published early next month, I hope you’ll read it at the link I provide.

Like Dr. Murillo, I’ve a second career, too-and like the good Dr., I’ve been able to connect both of my careers. They’re not separate entities, but parts of a whole and different expressions of a unified idea. That’s the kind of alchemy that isn’t luck or fortune. It’s created-and worked for. I feel like I’ve learned that in the past few years. I suppose I wish I’d learned it earlier, but then one cannot rush the fine chemical balance that makes things work.

Or something like that.




A-jumble, atwitter and Asleep

Oh gentles, it is not for lack of anything to say. Humblest of apologies, mea culpa.

Easter was grand and delightful at the Perez family’s house. Dear friends we’ve known for years. We go to the same church and they’re one of the reasons I have hope for raising a child. Randy and Janel are role models for us as parents. So, brother Doug and Katy and even Aunt Laurie–all of us at the Perez’s, eating espresso braised short ribs, polenta and salad, sipping good wine and enjoying the sunshine.

Then the schedule filled up with interviews and work. I interviewed a lovely and gracious woman who survived the Metrolink/Union Pacific accident of September 12, 2008. On that same night, I went to the Hollywood bowl and rode the bus that leaves the Chatsworth Metrolink station. As we arrived, there was indeed a pall at the station as news spread that 25 people had died and hundreds were injured. Kaia was one of the injured and she is a miracle.

As the train left the Chatsworth station, she turned to talk to a friend and put her feet in the aisle. The move may have been the reason she is alive today. Her three best friends died as did many other friends. All were injured and she was thrown across the ceiling of the train and into the bike rack at the back of the train-car.

I’m actually not writing about that aspect of her life–and I’m not at liberty to divulge what I am writing about. Suffice to say that meeting Kaia was a providence, a kind of graceful reminder of faith and love.

Meanwhile, one of my favorite recent articles came out. You can see it here.

I am awash in PR assignments and one journalistic assignment and much of it is swirling around in my head just now. Shannon had an evening presentation of her expert project at the community center where kids from all over her school district presented things they knew about. She worked with a friend of hers and they talked about horse-back riding. Shannon dressed in her English riding clothes and talked about English riding, while her friend talked about Western.

The result of writing, presentations, teaching and sleepiness has allowed me to write in a stream of unconsciousness this evening. Simon sleeping in my lap, Shannon watching her “Sweet Genius” program–and my mind a-jumble between sleepiness and wordage. Not even sure I can get beyond that right now.

More to come, gentles. The weekend will allow more time.




Art, flowers and corned beef

I have been pummeled by my daughter’s cold and it seems to be a bit angrier with me than it was with her. This could be because she’s 11 and I’m 46. Or, it could be because I have some sort of mutant version. I hope not.

But it didn’t stop us from taking a trip to the Huntington. This is a place I’ve never been before and it is extraordinary. The Huntington’s art collection includes some priceless treasures. Even Shannon and her friend stood before them in awe. The famous–or infamous–Blue Boy is there and we stood and looked at it. The richness and texture of the painting held our attention. There is a play of light on the satiny clothing and one leg is in the dark, while the other is in the sun. The boy’s face is almost real, and yet playfully cartoonish at the same time.

I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see the rare and ancient books collection. The Huntington has an Ellsmere edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and folios of Shakespeare’s plays as well as a Gutenberg Bible. Sadly, I wasn’t feeling well enough after taking in the mansions full of art and the labyrinth of gardens.

The sheer color of gardens, the blue flowers reaching across broken paths peppered with white petals fade into the architecture so that you’re not certain where gardens end and buildings begin at times. The soundtrack playing in my head of soft melodic strings reaching crescendo and pulling back to a restrained kind of peaceful ecstasy was better than any ipod could have given me.

The day was warm and bright and the people were friendly, too (this was in marked contrast to driving home and having to call 911 because a bunch of punk-ass teenaged boys were throwing down and fighting on my street in front of my house).

We left, languid and fulfilled in some sensory part of our brains that craves culture and art once in a while, but bone-tired. The grounds are expansive. Disneyland feels smaller. As we headed back west, we stopped off in Eagle Rock at the Oinkster. This is another Diner’s, Drive-ins and Dives restaurant and it lived up to both reputation and name. They make their own corned beef, smoke their own pork butts, grind their own beef–it’s exceptional. I ordered the Ruben and it was simply the best one I’ve ever had–including ones I’ve made myself. The corned beef was the star, but it wasn’t overpowered by too much dressing or smothered in sauerkraut. There were enough to compliment the incredible beef, not to ignore it.

Sue had rotisserie chicken and she said it was tender, juicy and flavorful. A side of black beans with peppers, onions and herbs and fried plantains with a dipping sauce made her day. The girls shared a pulled pork sandwich with Belgian fries. They each ate their portion. This should say enough about whether they liked it.

Home. Tired. Sick. Sleepy. Sore. Achy. Tired.  And fulfilled.




Story dogs

A revamp of the “About Mark” part of the blog because I finally was able to put into direct words what it is I do–and what it is I care about.

Today I was able to do a great deal of story-telling, indeed. The newspaper editors have been kind enough to give me a few more gigs this week and I’ve been on assignment for People Media Group for the past few days. Turned in my first draft tonight of that piece. It took a great deal of “reporting,” or really interviewing as I profiled six people and combined all of their diverse stories into one piece. It was exhilarating in one sense and exhausting, too. That’s rather how I like a gig–it builds you up and wears you out. 1200 plus words of profile. I only hope it’s good enough.

The newspaper stories are much easier to write because the newspaper doesn’t want it if it isn’t a story–but when writing profiles, I’m taking what are essentially bits and pieces of disparate information and people’s everyday lives and making stories out of them. That’s where the challenge is and like I said, I hope it’s good.

First real day of spring break and I had work to do–but even so, took the fam down to Fab’s Hot Dogs in Reseda. It was featured on one of our favorite shows, Diners-Drive-ins and Dives and since it’s about 40 minutes from here, we decided to give it a try. As it happens, it’s only a stone’s throw from where Sue and I met each other in the valley at Pierce College, so we were able to show that to Shannon as well.

The hot dogs are simply amazing. All beef, natural casings hot dogs wrapped in thick-cut crispy bacon with an endless list of toppings are really all I ask out of life. Yes, I’m still carrying evidence of the chow-down with me, too. I’m not sure the one Tums tablet will be enough.

Shannon and I each had a Fab dog–a heavenly creation of the dog, a tangy and slightly spicy tomato relish, bacon, mustard, onions–OMG, as the kids would say. Absolutely the best thing I’ve had in the sausage kingdom in a long time. It may well be better than Frank’s hot dogs in San Luis Obispo. It’s certainly more fattening.

They also have crispy tater tots and sweet potato fries with an addictive dipping sauce that I couldn’t get enough of. This was extraordinary stuff. I wish I could say I can’t wait to go back–but as I’m certain my arteries are still trying to process the thing, I’ll have to give it a few weeks. In between, perhaps I’ll get to Frank’s and have a Chicago dog.

Well, that’s tonight’s eclectic mix. I bid you good evening.