Budapest Leisure

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I finally ate at The Bigfish Seafood Bistro, a restaurant that some of the cast and crew have been raving about.  And it is fantastic!  I honestly never believed I could get good seafood in this landlocked country until today.  It is a simple concept — you choose your fish from the ice-bed behind a glass counter and they will grill it for you. It reminded me of Peter’s favorite seafood Chinese restaurant in the Bay Area, Koi Palace, where there are tanks filled with live fish and crustaceans.  Peter, the true fish lover of my family, would have enjoyed this place.    

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My friend and I picked a whole flounder, squids and octopus.  They came on a plater grilled with olive oil, lots of garlic and parsley — simple, no fuss and mouthwatering delicious. 

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Zsevago serves only drinks and no food. And it opens only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. I suppose the owner values his leisure as much as the customers.

After lunch, we roamed around the blocks and arrived at a Russian teahouse called Zsevago — a nostalgic space that looked like a stage set with old settees, divans and tables covered in old lace tablecloth.  For a couple of dollars, you can come here, order a tea and read in one of the upstair nooks or chat with friends in the living room area — where my friend and I sat.

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I have noticed that Budapest has a rich and vibrant cafe culture. There is a multitude of them within 15 minutes walk from where I’m staying.  While window display of shops in the city are often unattractive, the cafes and teahouses on the other hand are always warm, charming and enticing.  Could it be that this culture values the quality of its leisure time more than material possession?  I seem to sense contentment in the people sitting in cafes and teahouses, where time is ample and its passage sweet.

In today’s constant pursuit of efficiency and distraction, leisure has been exiled from our lives.  But is a life spent in multitasking productivity a good life?  I have my suspicions. 

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After we left the teahouse, my friend showed me the chocolate bar that she had wanted to take Audrey to.  It was closed on that day and Audrey was very disappointed.  Today, I went in her stead, in her white sandals. 

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Dark and atmospheric like an opium den, Noir ChocoBar exuded an air of decadence.   We devoured the mint and lavender flavored iced chocolate with chocolate ice cream.  I didn’t take a card from this place.  I fully intend to forget where it is and never find my way back here again.  The stuff is addictive like opium.

The Butcher & The Mother

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We were served by this owner chef today. Like in this photo, he didn’t smile much, but he did cook very delicious food.

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This grandmother is the inspiration behind According To My Mother.

I came back to Budapest without Audrey — my little companion in all the adventures here for the past month.  I woke up this morning pining for her.  Had she come back with me, we would have looked at the map together and found a new place to explore.  When I opened the suitcase that we had stored here with friends, I saw her favorite white sandals, left here by mistake, and decided to wear them for the day.

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My friend took me to a little restaurant called Butcher’s Kitchen for lunch.  The place is known for it’s sandwiches and fried potato wedges, but we decided to go low carb by ordering grilled pork neck and spareribs.  Like most other times that I went for “low carb” in Budapest, I ended up consuming a lot of carbs.  In today’s case, they were two baked potatoes with sour cream and cheese.  Those were arguably one of the best baked potatoes that I had ever had — crispy skinned, smoky flavored and with the perfect texture.  It was the smoky flavor in particular that made them special.  The joint is worth a visit just for the potatoes.  And the pork was also delicious.  Since Butcher’s Kitchen is less than 10 minutes walk from where I’m staying, I see myself coming back here again to sample the sandwiches in the near future. 

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The day’s best discovery was a tiny cafe called Anyam Szerint — According To My Mother in English.  My friend and I walked by it after lunch and were immediately drawn to the sweet aroma and aura emanating from it.  Audrey would have loved this quaint little nook filled with freshly baked desserts and confectioner’s sugar.  I could see her in my mind’s eye — standing in front of the counter, as I was, in her shoes — having the most difficult time deciding on only one piece.   

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My friend and I shared a cherry pastry that was absolutely scrumptious.  Because it was semisweet, you could really taste the fresh cherries through the airy layers of phyllo.  This is a nostalgic and cheerful place that reminds you of the gentle, warm and pleasurable moments in life. 

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Perfect Summer Lunch

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As soon as I landed in San Francisco on Wednesday, I received an email asking me to return to Budapest on Sunday.  I was supposed to have a two week break, but an unexpected schedule change cut my stay into less than four days. Peter didn’t want me to labor too much in the kitchen and suggested for us to eat out, but I have been eating out a lot when I was in Budapest and really wanted to stay in. 

So, I made these delicious, healthy summer dishes as effortlessly as lifting a feather.  All things on such a slow lazy midsummer Saturday should be this easy and beautiful.

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Heirloom Tomato Caprese Salad

Ingredients:

5 large heirloom tomatoes of different colors

2 medium to large fresh mozzarella cheese balls

Fresh basil leaves

Extra virgin olive oil to drizzle

Balsamic cream or balsamic glaze to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

Slice tomatoes and cheese and layer them in desired fashion.  Top with basil leaves.  Drizzle olive oil and balsamic cream.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

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Frozen Yogurt and Fruit Bonbons

1 banana

8 strawberries

1 1/2 cup yogurt of choice

Lay parchment paper on a cutting board or other flat surface.  Mix your favorite yogurt and fruit.  Spoon the yogurt covered fruit carefully on the parchment paper.  Leave in the freezer for an hour or longer.

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“My Cool, Grey City of Love”

I had a break in the shooting schedule and decided to come home for a visit.  I talked to Peter everyday when I was away, but Angela was not one to reveal much over the phone.  I needed to come home.  Angela doesn’t believe in vacations.  She would only travel for a “serious purpose” as she puts it — meeting a mentor in New York, going to school in Andover, taking summer courses at Brown, or attending a cousin’s wedding in Los Angeles.  Since she doesn’t have a serious purpose in Budapest, she will not travel there. 

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With Angela in Pompeii when she was nine

I used to lug Angela around the world with me when she was younger, but slowly she stopped wanting to go anywhere.  I found out that the external and physical world has never held as much power for her as the inner and intangible world that exists only in her head.  The vast, fertile and zigzagging interior terrain is where she prefers to explore.

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In an effort to gain insight into her mind and to stay connected when I am not with her, I resort to reading the books that she has read, and carefully considering all the notes scribbled by her on the pages.  Angela often sells the books back to Green Apple Books, a local bookstore, after she’s finished reading them, but the store doesn’t accept the ones with too much doodling.  Those are the ones I inherit my conduit to her world.  I have also begun to follow Angela on Spotify and listen to the songs on her playlists.  In Budapest, I was reading The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz and listening to Troubled Mind by Marina and the Diamonds, imagining what Angela felt about certain metaphors or symbolism.  The longer I didn’t see Angela, the more consumed I became by the incessant wondering about what’s on her mind.  Only coming home and seeing her could relieve me. Nothing is more reassuring than hugging the healthy body of one’s own child.

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It was a glorious day in San Francisco, sunny, warm and with a pleasant sea breeze, not at all our typical foggy cold summer day.  Peter took off from work to spend time with me.  We drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito for lunch.  Poggio Trattoria was recommended to us by one of Peter’s patients, who lives in Sausalito.  Everything on the menu looked enticing to me.  Peter ordered grilled octopus for appetizer and seafood fregula pasta as main course.  I ordered burrata to start and grilled salmon with fresh summer corn for the main course. We loved all the dishes.  After a month of rich Hungarian food, the lighter Californian-Italian cooking was a much desired change for me.  A perfect and long overdue date with the man of my life.

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Octopus is one of Peter’s very favorite food

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Burrata is one of my very favorite cheeses

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If you ever visit Sausalito, Poggio is definitely worth your while to dine in.

Eat and Meet in Budapest

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The restaurant is in a small apartment some distance away from the center in a quiet residential district by the Danube. The Balcony where we had our lemonade and water had a pleasant view of the river.

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Audrey’s new best friend, Benedict Wong – Kublai Khan

I’m afraid last night I led my posse into a tourist trap — a gentle, cozy and innocuous one, but a trap nevertheless.  I was looking for a special and different culinary experience and came across this pop-up restaurant called Eat and Meet on tripadvisor.com.  The reviews were fantastic.  It was rated as #7 out of 1,971 restaurants. I was ready to be wowed.

The hosts are Susie the Mother, Susie the Daughter and Frank the Father.  Since we were never given their full names I am now not sure if these are their real names or just their “stage names” — easy to use and remember for the tourists.

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Susie the Daughter would gently but firmly shush us in mid sentence whenever a dish or wine was presented to give us the history, background or benefit of each item.  After a while, some of us stopped paying attention and carried on with our conversation and Susie was somewhat at a loss as to how to proceed, as if we had deviated from the script.  I noticed that Audrey was always listening even when the region of the wine production didn’t really interest her.  I felt secretly proud that my daughter had good manners and was kind. 

I think for ordinary tourists who are in Budapest for two three days, this contact with a nice local family might be enchanting. But we are no ordinary tourists, and they are no ordinary local family. They are in the tourism business, and we are that strange species called film crew — seasoned travelers who feel at home wherever we happen to film.  We go to work everyday like the locals.  We shop groceries like the locals.  We drive around the city armed with GPS as if we know it like the locals.  A tourist trap was the last place we would like to find ourselves in, though quite a few from our party were rather amused by the whole situation. 

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The appetizers were fresh vegetables, cured meats, fresh and smoked cheese and cold fried pork fat. The main course was baked chicken breast wrapped around prunes, served with stewed apple and rice.  Dessert was a lemony fresh cheese, whipped cream, fruits and semi sweet cookie crumbs.  The appetizers were interesting — probably the best part of the dinner, though cold fried pork fat sounded like something I would make someone eat if he lost a bet.  To be fair, Dan Minahan, one of our producer/directors, did love the fried pork fat and said it was his favorite.  The baked chicken was unfortunately as dry as cardboard.  For 30 Euros per person in Budapest, even with the wine pairing, the food quality was not worth it.  I felt really bad for having led everyone into the trap.  If the family simply talked to us like real people about any topic instead of giving us a rehearsed speech about the food, we would have found the authenticity and the connection priceless.

Thank goodness for friendship and camaraderie, we enjoyed this shared experience and laughed about it afterwards. When I look at the photos I took, I remember mostly of the fun conversation and warm laughter we shared.  After we came back to the hotel, Audrey said, “They probably just hit a low point in their cooking tonight.”  She is always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and made me feel that I might be too harsh in my judgement.

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Palinka helped

We used Uber in Budapest for the first time this weekend.  Audrey and I went everywhere with Uber and found the rides at least 50% cheaper compared to the taxi cabs.  Some in the crew told me that the taxi drivers are not always straight when it comes to fares.  Uber is definitely the way to go.  

Budapest Indulgence

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Last day on Tamas Farm

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First day on Tamas Farm, sharing screen with the lovely Audrey

I was very happy when our van drove away from Tamas Farm for the last time on the narrow dirt road last night.  So many of our trucks and vans drove back and forth on the dirt road kicking up so much dust that it felt as if we were in a dust storm.  As I sat in the departing van cussing and choking on dust, I realized that one day I will look at the pictures of the idyllic gently rolling meadow and miss the place, the people and the time I shared with them.  It’s strange how I had a premonition of the imminent nostalgia as our van sped away leaving behind a plume of dust.

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Audrey with Marco Polo

Someone in the crew commented that I had not updated my blog lately and I said I had been on set everyday.  She joked, “Get your priorities straight, Joan, we are waiting for your recommendations for the weekend.”  This is how a hobby becomes stressful.

So what’s new?  I have apparently indulged in too much heavy Hungarian food because I noticed that my costume was becoming very tight.  I love to eat and have a voracious appetite.  It is truly difficult to eat healthy if I don’t cook for myself.  Last night I decided to order “the big raw mixed salad” from “Gluten Free And Carb Smart Options” for room service.  When the “carb smart” food arrived, it came with a basket of assorted breads and butter.  What is one to do?  

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For dinner today, Audrey and I went to a restaurant recommended to us by a Hungarian foodie from our camera crew.  He gave me a list of restaurants and one of them, Bock Bisztro, happens to be downstairs of the hotel that we are staying in.  The restaurant has won many awards and is Michelin Guide recommended.  Since we didn’t have a reservation we went very early before the dinner crowd.  Everything on the menu looked interesting to me.  I decided on Ox Cheek Retro while Audrey ordered Csango Vegetable Soup and Salad with Parmesan.

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I looked at the beef poster on the wall that explained the different cuts while waiting for my ox cheek.  I thought of my husband Peter, whose favorite part of a steamed fish is the cheek — that tiny pearl of flesh appreciated only by the most discerning fish eaters.  It has been many weeks since I last saw him and I grieve for all the meals that I can’t share with him — a food lover like myself.

The ox cheek came with chopped pig’s ear served in a bone and a huge buttery Hungarian dumpling.  The braised meat was melt-in-your-mouth soft and tender with the most delectable sauce. 

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Audrey’s vegetable soup was lemony and creamy with cauliflower, carrots, peas, onion and baby spinach.  She loved it, but was so full after eating her soup with bread that she couldn’t finish her salad. I had a few spoonful of her soup and regretted it right away.  Though it was delicious, it was like drinking cream.

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Bacon flavored lard for the bread.

Off to the pool now to try to undo some damage.

Mongolia in Budapest

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There was a lot of waiting on set for me today.  I got picked up at 7:20 in the morning from the hotel and didn’t begin my scene until 4:00 in the afternoon.  I had a lot of time looking at the camels who were also waiting.  Though not in our natural habitat, the camels and I seem to be quite content and at home here in our make-believe homeland.  It was a luxury really, sitting idly under the sun without any guilt — technically I was working.  I act for fun, but I get paid for waiting.  Why didn’t I bring a book?  A book would have been perfect.  I found myself not reading as much as I used to.  There is simply too much distraction from everywhere all the time. 

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When the camels got up to take a walk, so did I.  There were miles and miles of undulating sunflower fields around where we were filming and they were breathtaking.  I sometimes hate waiting on set, especially if the upcoming scene is emotional because too much waiting destroys one’s readiness.  You end up feeing drained before you can even begin. Today I decided to luxuriate in the peaceful surrounds of Tamas Farm — it’s not everyday that I come to a place like this and I will never be here again when these scenes are finished.

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Audrey and I found a lovely little restaurant a few blocks from our hotel called KonyvBar & Restaurant.  It is a book lovers’ haunt where the chef creates his weekly specials based on the theme of a book that he has read and wants to recommend.  This week’s book is Gerald Durrel’s My Family and other Animals, an account of an English family’s experience in Greece.  The specials are all Greek, including dishes like Mother’s first moussaka and  Watermelon granita. The atmosphere is Zen-like and gentle.  It is a place that if you had to eat by yourself, you’d feel pretty comfortable sitting there with a book.  Audrey’s steak was excellent — tender, juicy and flavorful, while my beef stew, though redolent with great spices, was a little tough.  But I will definitely go back there again, even if just to find out about the chef’s next book and his new weekly specials.

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Taking pictures of our food has become a pandemic worldwide

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I found this painted wall across from the restaurant quite charming

London Bridge Is Falling Down, Falling Down…

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On Waterloo Bridge with Big Ben in the background

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On Waterloo Bridge with London Eye in the background

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London Eye

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The Lion King in Lyceum Theater

The reason that I did not update my blog for a while is because I took Audrey on a whirlwind visit to London.  Our four days there were packed  The Lion King, British Museum, dinner parties, shopping and best of all: time with friends.  We stayed with my friends Hanan and Shamim, who were the warmest of hosts anyone could have. They are both foodies, and like mine, their two large refrigerators are always full.  When it comes to eating, Hanan errs on the side of extravagance.  The day we got there, they had a few friends over for dinner, but they prepared enough food to feed a battalion.  Hanan was the first person to introduce me to Lebanese cuisine when we met 20 years ago.  And how we met was an incredible story that I had shared in one of my earlier blogs.  I was so happy to taste her lemony chicken with hummus, fried garlic and pine nuts again.  And her flat bread sprinkled with ground thyme, sumac powder and sesame seeds was so delicious that I had to ask for the recipe.  I will try to make the bread in the near future and share with you my result.

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When Audrey told some of the crew members from London that she was going to visit their city for the first time, they asked her what she was going to see there.  I was surprised to hear her answer.  Other than London Bridge from the nursery rhyme, the only things she had heard of were London Eye, Top Shop and Primark.  There is a Chinese proverb 读万卷书行万里路. It means traveling 10,000 miles is as good as reading 10,000 books.  Our London trip has been eye opening for Audrey, who now remembers London as a historically rich, culturally vibrant city with some of the world’s best museums, theaters and restaurants.

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British Museum

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Waffle from the waffle truck in front of the British Museum

As Audrey and I walked across Waterloo Bridge, I told Audrey about how the film Waterloo Bridge starring Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh was one of the two Hollywood films that I had seen before I left China in 1981.  In my teen mind, the black and white bridge in the fog was the most romantic place on earth.  In those days, Chinese films were made exclusively as Communist propaganda, but before a film went into production, the director could request to watch “foreign reference films” that were strictly forbidden for the general public.  Those discretionary screenings were the most coveted privileges in the film industry reserved for the few top department heads and lead actors.  The only other Hollywood film that I had seen was Julian from Lilian Hellman’s book Pentimento.  Many of the films I saw since then have faded from my memory — sometimes as soon as I left the theater, but those two films from so long ago have been branded in my mind’s eye.  They had been the oasis of my cultural desert.

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I caught a cold on the second day there when Audrey and I went on the London Eye.  I have since lost my voice.  I hope that my voice will return by tomorrow when I get to the set.  

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Hanan, Shamim and their two boys with Audrey and me

The Empress’s Handmaiden

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Audrey and I got up at 4:15 this morning to get ready for our 4:45 pick up to go to the set, which is an hour away from the hotel.  Audrey had her first taste of Hollywood glamor by standing in the sweltering heat all day in layers of costumes, holding a copper teapot.  This might just cure her affliction of wanting to be an actress.  I thought it ironic that she was playing one of Empress Chabi’s handmaidens in the show because in real life I’d been her handmaiden ever since she was born. Don’t get me wrong.  Being my kids’ handmaiden is something I enjoy doing tremendously — one of the worthier jobs that I’ve had.  Of course there were times I was fed up by the never ending chore of cleaning after them, but I wouldn’t change it for anything else.

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Exhausted, Audrey skipped lunch and took a nap.

As I promised yesterday, here is the recipe for the pickled radishes.

Ingredients:

12 small red radishes, trimmed, unpeeled, quartered

1/4 onion, sliced (the onions in Budapest are tiny and I estimated it to be about 1/4 of a large onion)

5 garlic cloves, sliced

1 small carrot, sliced

2 paprika pepper, sliced

1 poblano pepper, sliced

2 cups cider vinegar (I don’t have a measuring cup and estimated enough to cover the vegetables)

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (I approximated with a real teaspoon)

3 to 4 teaspoon sugar (I used 4 sugar packs from the coffee tray)

1/4 cup water (I filled an espresso cup about 2/3 full)

Preparation:

Combine vinegar, sugar, salt and 1/4 cup of water in a small pot and bring to boiling.  Add thinly sliced onion, turn off stove and close the lid for 3 minutes.  Add the rest of the vegetables and mix.  Pour content into a glass jar.  Make sure the vegetables are fuller immersed in the vinegar mixture.  Cool and leave in the fridge for 1 hour to 1 week.

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Budapest Sunday

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Almost all shops are closed on Sundays in Budapest, but there are some markets and bazaars that stay open, mostly for tourists.  And that’s us.  Audrey fell in love with a dress in a street market called Gozsdu Bzaar.  After looking at all the stalls in the bazaar, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch.  From where we sat, we happened to be peering at the back of a stand where an old man was selling whistles and dresses — an odd combination that was later explained.  Pointing at a cream dress with little blue flowers, Audrey told me, “This dress looks like the one from Urban Outfitters.  I will show you.”  She proceeded to show me the dress on her phone and said she would like to try the dress.  While I sat at the table waiting for the food to arrive, Audrey went to ask the old man if she could try the dress in the lady’s room in the cafe. She came back to the table with the dress and told me that all the dresses were made by the old man’s wife.  So, that was why the whistle stand also sold dresses. 

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I ordered the roasted goose leg with red cabbage, which seems to be a national dish that most restaurants manage to prepare well. This one was crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. Quite delicious. But you see why I must skip dinner.

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From where we sat, we saw the back side of the whistle stall that also sold dresses.

Unfortunately, the pretty dress was too small for Audrey.  I told her to ask the old man if his wife could sew a larger one and we will come back in a couple of weeks.  Audrey came back and said that the old man said no, but his english wasn’t good enough to describe the reason why not.  It was either because his wife was leaving him or she was dead.  I thought that was strange and went to talk to him again after lunch.  He told me again that his wife was leaving him. “Tomorrow,” he added, flapping his arms.  We finally understood that she was leaving for vacation tomorrow.

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The whistle stand. The dress behind the old man is the one Audrey wanted.

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This stand sold little candle shades that turn your wine goblets into candle holders. They are perfect for our wine glasses because we don’t drink.

Disappointment aside, Audrey found some lovely souvenirs and gifts to bring home. 

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After a heavy lunch, I made some more quick pickled radish.  This time I added onion, garlic, poblano pepper and paprika to the mix.  We snacked on the pickled radishes while watching Mrs. Doubtfire, which brought us back to the familiar streets of San Francisco.  The film was shot in and around a house only a few blocks from our home.

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I have to get up at 4am tomorrow for my first day shooting, and I must go to bed now.  I will share the recipe for pickled radishes tomorrow because they are really delicious.