Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sure the holidays are fun when you’re surrounded by family members, but it’s also utterly exhausting.

I’ve been in the U.S. for 23 days and have a few more days to go – the longest I’ve ever been back since we moved abroad in June 2010. I’m sure you’ve been there…when you travel, you end up sleeping in hotels, beds and couches that just aren’t the same as your own bed back home. I miss our comfortable bed and quiet apartment in Warsaw.

But our first American Thanksgiving since 2009 was a memorable experience. We celebrated this traditional American holiday with 24 members of my husband’s family in Pennsylvania. It’s amazing how my mother-in-law puts the entire meal together for aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc. She likes to do many recipes on her own because that’s the way she’s always done them, so I actually stayed clear of the kitchen for the most part. However, I did contribute by making my cheesy green bean casserole and two desserts.
My homemade cheesy green bean casserole. None of that canned junk for me! 
Like most American kitchens, not every dish was completed on schedule. Thanksgiving is always a difficult meal to pull off because most of the traditional dishes are baked in the oven. And you can only have so many dishes in the oven at one time. The turkey needed more time to brown on top and then the dinner rolls still needed to be baked.

But we did pull it off, and our meal was delicious!
My father-in-law and cousin carving up the turkey. 
Here are a couple photos from our first American Thanksgiving in five years. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday as well!
Making pies the day before Thanksgiving.
My nine-year-old niece wants to be a pastry chef. I love that!

Just some of our Thanksgiving dishes.
Thanksgiving 2013 group family photo.
Our Thanksgiving pies - chocolate cream, apple crumb and pumpkin.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A golden brown, herbed turkey, casserole dishes of cheesy green beans and dressing and five pounds of cream cheese-enriched mashed potatoes.

These were just some of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes I made last Sunday for my family in Nebraska. We celebrated our first Thanksgiving meal on American soil since 2009 with my mom, dad, brother, aunt and uncle. I had the menu all planned out and found it went off without a hitch minus the 12-pound turkey taking a bit longer to cook.

Since my dad’s health isn’t the greatest, I modified my normal recipes by using reduced-fat cheese and fat-free sour cream for my cheesy green bean casserole dressed with panko bread crumbs instead of fried onions. To make the potatoes richer, I used low-fat cream cheese instead of butter and heavy cream. For the dressing, I only used chicken stock in place of butter to make the dish more moist.
Then, I rubbed down the turkey with lots of garden-fresh herbs, freshly ground black pepper and some Smart Balance as well as filled the cavity with more herbs, onions and celery. The end result was still a moist and golden brown turkey.
I have to say you wouldn’t have noticed a difference!

Even for my Thanksgiving baking, I lightened up my recipes. Instead of my normal buttery pastry crust for pumpkin pie, I used ground gingersnap cookies and graham crackers mixed with a little apple cider and corn syrup. The crust was a little sticky and more rustic looking, but most importantly, it tasted great with the pumpkin pie filling.

Then, instead of an apple pie, I decided to make a low-fat apple cake for our second dessert. I found a recipe in one of my mom’s old issues of Light & Tasty magazine and made it even healthier with some substitutions below. The cake was moist and tasted like fall with the addition of ginger and cinnamon spices. I knew this cake was going to be a winner as soon as I tasted the spiced cake batter!
Our Thanksgiving desserts!
Though we’ve celebrated the last three Thanksgivings abroad in Istanbul, it certainly was nice being surrounded by my family members. We toasted each other with wine or sparkling cider and shared stories about our new expat life in Warsaw. My aunt and uncle filled us in on our other relatives living in the Midwest. It was wonderful to be “home.”
Family pics from Thanksgiving 2013.
Next week, we will be celebrating a second Thanksgiving dinner with more than 20 members of my husband’s family on the East Coast. More food is definitely in store for us!

Wherever you may be this holiday season, I hope it’s a happy one filled with plenty of good food!

Happy (early) Thanksgiving!
Low-fat apple cake topped with Cool Whip, of course!
I'm ready to serve desserts!
Low-fat Apple Cake for Thanksgiving
Adapted from Light & Tasty magazine
Yields: One 9-inch metal springform pan

3          Tablespoons    melted Smart Balance or butter
¾         cup                  granulated sugar
¼         cup                  Egg Beaters or 1 each large egg
1          ea.                    egg white
1          cup                  low-fat vanilla yogurt
1/3       cup                  unsweetened applesauce
2          Tablespoons    vegetable oil

2          cups                 all-purpose flour
½         cup                  golden raisins
1          teaspoon          baking powder
1          teaspoon          pumpkin pie spice
½         teaspoon          ground ginger
½         teaspoon          baking soda
½         teaspoon          salt

2          ea.                    peeled, diced Gala apple
3          Tablespoons    chopped walnuts
1          Tablespoon      brown sugar
½         teaspoon          ground cinnamon
1/8       teaspoon          ground allspice

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until crumbly, about 2 minutes.

Add the egg, egg white, yogurt, applesauce and oil. Mix together.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.

Combine the dry ingredients with the yogurt mixture, stirring just until moistened.

Spread the cake batter into a nonstick pan lined with baking paper. Using a pastry brush, brush the pan with sunflower oil.

In a separate bowl, toss together the apple, walnuts, sugar and spices. Spread this mixture on top of the cake batter. 

Bake the cake at 350 F/175 C for about 45 minutes or a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Our final Thanksgiving table shot.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Whenever I return to my homestate of  Nebraska, I feel like not much really changes.

That’s especially true as soon as I enter my childhood home that my parents have owned since 1972.

Mom: “Why aren’t you wearing any socks? You’ll catch a cold.”

“You shouldn’t drink that grape juice in the living room. What if you spill it on the carpet?”

“Don’t tease the dog.”

I feel like I’m 15 years old again instead of in my mid-30s. It happens every time I return home. Do all moms act this way as their children grow up?

At home, I’m sleeping in my childhood room again. The pink and flower-flecked wallpaper and rosy-colored carpet is still the same. An embroidered picture of my name by one of my aunts still hangs on the wall. Abandoned boxes full of college papers, books and photos of ex-boyfriends still reside in my old closet.
I found my long-lost baby photos tucked away in a cupboard filled with holiday decorations at my parents' house. The one on my right has always been my favorite.
I always feel a bit out of place returning “home” even though this is where I grew up. This life is so different and quiet from my always-changing expat life. I don’t know which country we will live in the next few years. I don’t know when we’ll live in the U.S. again. I don’t know when we will have a permanent home, but at the same time, I enjoy this nomadic life. It’s not always easy either, but we make it work. I hope that all makes sense. I'm sure other expats can relate a bit.

My mom and dad, on the other hand, think my life is hectic and crazy. They may see it that way, but that’s okay. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I doubt we’ll ever live in the same house for 40 years either. 

I’ll be spending the next 10 days with my family, and then I’ll be with my husband’s family. I’ll be a bit out of touch as we catch up with our families during our annual U.S. trip. I’ll try and write a few blog posts, but hopefully, you’ll understand why I’m out of touch.

Cheers from chilly Nebraska!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Whenever you can find a pond or some kind of water source, you likely will find the perfect opportunity to see some beautiful reflections in the water.

This is the kind of opportunity I looked for during our recent trip to Białowieża Forest in eastern Poland. Fortunately, I didn’t have to search too far as there was a pretty pond near the PTTK office when we dropped off our forest tour guide.

Blue skies, a cute brick house and autumn-colored trees presented themselves right before me. What else could I have asked for?
This one is like a mirror image reflected on the pond.
Later in the afternoon after a long nap and a dip in the hotel’s jacuzzi, we returned to this pond area for the “Golden Hour” – the time right around sunrise or sunset when the light is soft and perfect for taking photos. I set up our tripod and started clicking.

I love it when Mother Nature exposes herself like this and you can’t help but stare breathlessly at her beauty. The crisp, fall air, the brilliant blues and soft yellows in the sky and the reflections from the trees made for ideal photos.
On the way driving back to our hotel, my husband nearly abruptly stopped in the middle of the road. “Look!” he exclaimed.

While I had been looking out my window for more water reflection picture-taking opportunities, the sky had turned brilliant shades of magentas and violets on the other side. We found a parking spot just on the outskirts of the village of Białowieża, where we were staying.

Again, Mother Nature opened up her skies and I took advantage of it.
This photo is my favorite of them all. I love the pinks in the sky!

I knew our forest trip was going to be a memorable experience, but I hadn’t planned on seeing such a splendid Golden Hour as this one!
Water reflections at dawn during our hike in the forest.

For some tips on how to shoot the best water reflections, check out the Digital Photography School.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

With less than five hours of sleep, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. to dress in three layers of warm clothing for our pre-dawn tour in eastern Poland. Outside, the temperature was 0 C/32 F.

Technically, it wasn’t the Polish bison we were in the pursuit of, but the European bison, that call the Białowieża Forest home.

This ancient forest, that straddles Poland and Belarus located 260 km east of Warsaw, is one of the last and largest remaining parts of a primeval forest that once stretched across most of Europe. On the Polish side, part of the Białowieża Forest is protected as the Białowieża National Park (Białowieski Park Narodowy), covering about 105 square kilometers (41 sq. miles). For centuries, the forest was used as a private hunting ground for Lithuanian and Belarusian princes, Polish kings and Russian Tsars.

We would soon find out that the forest seemed like a peaceful, magical place – almost as if you were traveling back in time hundreds of years ago.

Shortly after we moved to Warsaw, I read about the Białowieża Forest in The Zookeeper’s Wife and immediately knew we must plan a visit. The book describes the forest as “…that green isthmus linking different regimes, walking in the shade of trees half a millennium old, where the forest closes in, intimate as a tick, one fragile, fully furnished organism with no visible borders.” I wanted to walk amongst those trees too!
One of the older trees in Białowieża Forest. Oh, only 300 years old or so.
I also hoped to encounter the forest’s bison, a cousin to the American bison, on our private pre-dawn tour.

Less than 100 years ago, the bearded European bison, which is the unofficial mascot of Białowieża, were nearly extinct. In 1923, it was known that only 54 bison survived in zoos all around the world, none of them in Poland. In 1929, a small herd of four was bought by the Polish state from various zoos, bred and re-introduced to the forest. Now, numbering nearly 500 according to our guide, Joanna, the bison is probably the forest’s most recognized inhabitant.

During the drive from our hotel to the forest, we encountered a gigantic wild boar and a skittish fox running across the road in front of our car. I’m glad we missed hitting that boar, but I did enjoy eating a wild boar steak wrapped in bacon later that night!

Once we set foot deeper in the forest, our guide pointed out the tracks made by wild boar and deer as well as the bison. We also followed the fresh bison droppings, hoping to see the bison around the corner.
Fresh bison tracks.
And we did!

The bison was off in the distance in a grassy field just munching away.
Hard to tell, but this is one of the European bison too. 
Later on, we would encounter two more bison just hanging out in an open field in the tiny village of Teremiski.
This sweet Huskie, named Chester, acted like he wanted to play with the bison.
The European bison are massive creatures, with the adult male weighing up to 900 kilograms (nearly 2,000 pounds). You don’t want to mess with them!

While I was crouched down in the bushes taking photos near Teremiski, one of the bisons stopped munching on the grass and stared right at me. Apparently, my flash had gone off and scared the animal. He did not look happy.
This is when I received the bison stare down!
I stopped taking photos and froze, trying to hide behind the scraggly bushes.

My husband slowly pulled up the car alongside the road so I could make a mad dash for the car if needed. Luckily, after a minute or so, the bison casually resumed eating his grass and ignored me long enough so I could slink back to the car.

That’s as close as I needed to get to see the bison in the wild.
One of the Bison Refuge areas where hay is placed during the winter when it's more difficult for the bison to find food in the forest.
Private guide recommendation
  • We booked a 6-hour private tour, “Tête-à-tête with Bison,” through PTTK, a Polish non-profit tourist organization, in advance online. The website is in English, and many of the guides speak several languages. The office, located in the town of Białowieża, is open from 8 a.m.-4 p.m.

  • Our tour cost 390 PLN ($128), and was worth every cent. Our guide, Joanna, who lived in the area, spoke excellent English, was very knowledgeable about the forest’s trees, flora and fauna and took us to trails we never would have found on our own.
  • Spring, autumn and winter are the best seasons to visit the forest. We were advised to avoid the summer months due to mosquitoes and the heat. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

After seeing the trees rapidly change colors this fall, I’d recommend this as one of the top seasons to visit Warsaw or elsewhere in Poland.

Apparently, the Poles even have a special term to describe this season - the Golden Polish Autumn, (Złota Polska Jesień). The month of October was truly splendid with golden, rust and pumpkin colors around the city.
Though it’s only the first week in November, the majority of the trees have already shed their leaves. That means even colder winter temps are just around the corner.

Last month, I spent several afternoons taking photos around the city, which continues to surprise me with its hidden beauty. It’s so refreshing to take a stroll through one of the city’s numerous parks as mentioned in my Top 10 Reasons to Love Living in Warsaw.
Abandoned pre-war building near the Gas Museum in Warsaw.
One of the parks I discovered thanks to one of my local readers, Kami at Kami & The Rest of the World, was Park Skaryszewski, the largest park on the right bank of Warsaw. The park covers 55 hectacres and contains several ponds, trees and places to settle down for a picnic as well as a waterfall and a small pub. Again, remember all the ‘pubs in parks’ that I’ve mentioned before?
Seagulls landing on the pond in Park Skaryszewski. 
When I visited Park Skaryszewski, it was difficult to not take a good photo as the autumn-colored trees were perfectly reflected in the ponds. Pretty soon, I found myself with about 100 photos. Thank goodness I can edit and delete them later!
Until next fall, enjoy these photos taken around Warsaw. Maybe they’ll convince you to visit us next year during the Golden Polish Autumn!
I've seen some of the best fiery sunsets this fall in Warsaw!
Pine tree reflections at the park.
Park Skaryszewski
Address: Aleja Zieleniecka and Aleja Jerzego Waszyngtona See map.
Warsaw, Poland