Driving the Amish Country in Indiana

I sat with an ice cream outside of the small, harshly lit shop in Shipshewana, slowly licking the only ice cream cone I’ll allow myself until next summer before it melted all over my hands. Two girls in bonnets, perhaps about 12, kicked down their kickstands, giggling arm in arm as they entered the shop for their own cones.

I smiled to myself: even in a Midwest tourism hotspot, summer traditions never die. Even when you throw an entirely different way of life into the mix.

Faced with my most hectic summer yet, I had been looking forward to the Novio’s Third American Tour and a respite from planning our wedding (surprise?!). After every big decision had been made, we treated ourselves to a day out. We tossed around several ideas before sticking close to Chicago – Iowa City, Milwaukee and Indiana Amish country.

The planner in me cringed when the website was down the day before our trip, and rain clouds had me balking at getting in a car and driving two hours. 

The Novio and I decided to take a chance and drive just east of South Bend to Elkhart, Indiana, perched city on the Saint Joseph river. The County Visitor’s Bureau is located just off the highway, and the woman behind the desk simply stood, handed us a CD and a driving map and sent us off. No explanation, no upselling – just an honest (though strong) opinion on what to do.

I just wasn’t thrilled to stay in the driver’s seat and continue driving.

Logistically speaking, the Heritage Trail is on-point: the CDs provide you with driving instructions along the 90-minute loop that starts and ends in Elkhart, as well as signs that mark the upcoming change in directions. As we straddled towns (and counties), the tracks on the two disks provided us with local lore and history, as well as insight into the Amish way of life.

Country roads snaked us from Elkhart past Bonneyville, onto Middlebury, where we had an Amish-style lunch, and out-of-town to Shipshewana, the mecca of Amish country. Tempted to stop at cheese factories and furniture stores along the way, I instead opted for slow living, driving five under the speed limit instead of five over, and banjo music as we town hopped.

As soon as we turned down State Road 4, the only vehicles we met were horse-drawn buggies. Horses grazed overgrown fields, stark white against the peeling red paint of the sort of barns I passed as a kid on my way to my grandparents’ in the countyside. 

 The Novio was surprised to have everyone we passed raise an arm in salutation as we crawled along the country roads. Buggies were tied up to feed stores, replacing parking meters, and clothes gently flapped in the wind. Even the buggies we passed let out a wool of a hello as we signaled to pass them. 

 

Try as I might to be a city girl, I grew up visiting my best friend Megan on her farm when we were children. Back them, my hay fever didn’t bother me, and we’d play with kittens in the barn, ride horses and play endless round of hide and seek in the cornfields before laying out our sleeping bags on the deck with the wide sky of the outskirts over our heads.

After the stressful start to the summer, I could feel myself breathing normally again.

Once we reached Goshen, the count seat, things went from Amish Paradise to Small-Town-Gone-Sour. Once a bustling city that Chicago gangsters preyed on, the town’s charming storefronts no longer gleamed, and yet another old theatre was being threatened with demolition.

We settled on Goshen’s only bar for a beer, but pitchers were less than a beer in downtown Chicago. As we chatted up the folks from down the road, we decided to call it a day. Driving back home, as the traffic got thicker and messier thanks to a sudden downpour as we crossed the state line, I dreaded the following day’s wedding planning.

Once we were out of Goshen and skipping the second half of the tour, which led to purely Amish Napanee, the Novio whispered to me that he was a little let down with the trip. 

“I saw an Amish woman reading a fashion magazine downtown.”

Have you ever taken a driving tour in the US? Do you love small towns and out-of-the-way places? Check out more stories about road trips: Montenegro // Gran Canaria // Tenerife

Tapa Thursday: Meson Sabika in Naperville, Illinois

 Growing up, I didn’t even know Spanish food existed. My mother is not an adventurous eater, and even our tacos were devoid of spice, onions and garlic powder.

When I began studying Spanish at age 13, I was exposed to an entirely different culinary world – Spanish cuisine. Tapas were discussed extensively in my textbook, but it seemed like a foreign concept that I’d never get to try. That is, until Señor Selleck took us to Mesón Sabika – one of the few Spanish restaurants in the Chicagoland area at the time – senior year for a field trip.

Recently, Kaley of Kaley Y Mucho Más published a post on why she thought American tapas restaurants get it all wrong. She’s definitely got a point – tapas portions at raciones prices and a more crowd-pleasing “take” on Spanish cuisine is not for me – but since I had to be at Meson Sabika for a lunchtime meeting, I figured I could have a beer and a few dishes.

Arriving at a Spanish meal time of nearly 2pm, the frazzled but friendly waitress led us immediately to the bar, where we figured we’d get away from the lull of chatter of the other patrons. Built in 1847 as a family home, the mansion that houses Meson Sabika has various dining rooms named after Spanish cities, landmarks and foods with accented ceramic bowls and bullfighting posters. Not as sleek as Café Ba-ba-reeba or Mercat a la Planxa, but definitely more intimate than Café Ibérico.

The Spanish wine list is extensive, with even lesser-known DOs like Jumilla and Toro represented. Margaret chose a fruity Rueda, but I stuck with a beer and ordered a 1906 (Spanish restaurants may not know Spanish food, but Meson Sabika had my two favorite Spanish beer brands, Estrella Galicia and Alhambra!).

While safe, the menu plays up Spanish favorites by making them a bit more American-palate friendly. Many of the meat dishes had cheese or roasted vegetables with them, bocaditos came with garden salads and not one dish contained a weird animal part. We settled on papas bravas to share, which came covered with shredded manchego cheese and chopped parsley. Not the most Spanish dish, but definitely tasty.

We each decided on an individual entrée – skirt steak with roasted potatoes and cabrales cheese for my sister, eggplant and roasted red peppers sliders for me. After so many brats and beers and processed food, it tasted like home.

While Spanish restaurants stateside might not embrace the eat-as-many-small-plates-as-you-like and we’re-family-let’s-share mentality that I love about Spanish food traditions, the menu does have a lot of different choices for even the most wary about Spanish food (let’s put it this way – my mother thinks it’s an appropriate for a big party venue) and makes it pretty easy to share a few things and still get your own plate. 

But, ouch, the bill! A meal like this back in Spain might have run us 20€ without a tip, but I ponied up $50 after tax and tip for the two of us. And no free olives?!

Have you been to any tapas bars or Spanish restaurants in your home country? What it your opinion on their food, prices and portions?

In case you go: Mesón Sabika is located on Aurora Avenue in downtown Naperville. Open daily for lunch and dinner; Saturdays, dinner only. Their menu is available on their website.

A Peek at Life in India: the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

From where we stood, halfway up the hill to the Monkey Temple, the waning light was turning ‘The Pink City’ a pearly, golden hue. The jagged skyline’s stack of buildings and telephone poles, a thousand candles, was like a fanciful birthday cake.

I scanned the horizon across Jaipur, noting the immense desert city that sat sprawled between mountains. We’d come because the city that had been painted the color of hospitality was rumored to be beautiful but gritty, busy but manageable. The Amer palace was the draw, but I had my eyes locked on the cake topper in the center of the cake – the Hawa Mahal.

Our tuk-tuk driver, Ali, warned us that the Hawa Palace was not really worth seeing. “It’s a house. A pink house. Better at Mughal market for the shopping.”

I’m sure you say that to all the ladies, Ali. Tu t’aime las filles, after all.

On our only full day in Jaipur, we did a whirlwind tour of the Fort, skipping the elephant ride as we climbed the hill on which the intricate palace sits before seeing the Janta Mantur observatory. While Ali tried to persuade us that it was better to skip the pink palace for a lassi drink and browsing the spice market, I couldn’t get over the pink lattice windows that peeked out above the city palace.

Like in many countries I’ve visited, the Hawa Mahal is essentially a fancy brothel, beautifully constructed living quarters that once included gilded doors and extravagant fountains against a facade that resembles a honeycomb. The five-story building is riddled with staircases, rooms, windows and lattice-work, allowing its inhabitants to see life on the streets below without actually being seen themselves.

Hayley and I saw a great deal of India from a tuk tuk, not quite on in a hit-the-pavement sort of way I had craved when we booked tickets. Even through the kindness of hotel owners, who helped us when we were scammed, through driving tuk tuk down deserted roads, to posing in pictures with sari-clad Indians in front of the Taj Mahal, I feel as though we barely scratched India’s expansive surface.

Like the women who once lived in the small bedrooms of the Palace of the Winds and could witness the trading and chaos, the wandering animals and the comforting hum of daily life in Jaipur, our India experience felt like theirs – someone not quite on the inside. I suddenly had the urge to skip Mumbai and stay in the Pink City, to consider India in the future. After five days, two train rides and countless interactions with strangers, I knew one trip to India would never be enough for me.

Ali was waiting for us at the Tripolia Bazaar, feet up on the narrow dashboard of his motorized tricycle. “So, very boring, yes?” he questioned as we climbed into the back and he sped off towards the spice market.

I somehow knew India had gotten under my skin in that very moment.

Have you ever wanted to learn more about a destination after you’d visited? Or do you see things and then mentally cross it off a bucket list?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Las Islas Canarias

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

When the Novio asked if it would be ok if he took me to a wedding on Gran Canaria island, I started looking for flights before I even agreed. Located off of the coast of Africa, this archipelago is comprised of a dozen islands, has two capitals and is famous for being a holiday maker’s paradise. 

As we drove around Gran Canary on an amazing road trip, dined on fresh seafood and I attended my first Spanish wedding, I almost forgot that most of the people we met or who served us spoke English. Six years later, I was on a Tenerife road trip with locals, exploring caverns, colonial cities and Spain’s highest peak.

The islands are definitely Spanish while retaining a little bit of a wild heart.

Name: Islas Canarias

Population: 2.1 million, the majority of whom are on Tenerife and Gran Canaria

Provinces: The Canaries consist of seven main islands: and Tenerife in the Santa Cruz de Tenerife province; and Gran Canaria in the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria province. What other autonomous region can boast two regional capitals?!

When: 11th of 17 regions, June 2008 

About: The islands’ name is said to be derived from the population of monk seals that once inhabited the islands. Volcanic eruptions led to the formation of the seven inhabited islands and five smaller islands less than 100 kilometers off the coast of Morocco, which are believed to have been inhabited from the Roman times, or perhaps earlier by aboriginals once called guanches.

Thanks to its strategic positioning, the islands have served as an outpost for explorers (including Columbus), mission bases for galleons and fleets and pirate hideouts. The islands were colonized by the Castillian crown in the early 15th century, and the autonomy gained status as one of Spain’s 17 in the early 1980s. Nowadays, sugar and bananas are huge exports, and small pockets of immigrants from the mainland, Europe and northern Africa make the islands an interesting cultural melting pot.

Must-sees: The big draw to the Canarias is the sun – the islands get more sunny days and a more stable climate than any other place in Spain. So there’s the beach, the sand and the sun, which is why droves of budget flights congregate in the two largest airports in the archipelago, Tenerife Sur and Gran Canaria. In fact, I flew for free to Tenerife earlier this year! Lanzarote also draws those with a love of hiking and adventure sports.

On my first visit, we spent time on Gran Canaria, hitting the capital, the touristy southern resort towns of the island like Maspalomas, Playa de los Ingleses and Puerto Mogán and the northern gems of Arucas and Agaete before visiting the central mountains of this near-circular island.

My long weekend in Tenerife was full of adventure – from the guachinches to scaling Mount Teide, Spain’s highest point. While the southern part of the islands draws the sun seekers and the cruise ships, the north is a bit more local and untamed, as well as wallet-friendly. The cliffs are just as dramatic as I’d expect them to be on the other islands, which are far less touristy.

Undoubtedly, what stands out about the islands is the biodiversity, from marine life to plants. The islands boast four national parks, a number of celebrated canarios and a dedication to preserving the island way of life. I was shocked to see so many local fairs, Canarian kitchens and a pidgin-holed language that uses gua-gua instead of bus or employs whistles.

Oh, and then there’s the Carnival, one of the largest outside of Brazil. And the food – the fresh shellfish, the soft cheeses and the mojo picón-drenched wrinkly potatoes.  

My take: I am always a bit hesitant about places that are overly touristy and catered towards those wallets. When the Novio took me to Gran Canaria, we sat on the dunes in Maspalomas, sun bathed on Playa de las Canteras and ate in a British pub. But we also partied at a Spanish wedding in a beautiful church in Arucas and drove to Roque Nublo in the center of the island.

We truly got the best of both worlds – the familiarity of my Anglo world with the charm of an island community, plus the melting pot of so many other languages, cultures and histories. I felt like it was a bridge between my two worlds.

Have you been to the Canary Islands? What would you recommend seeing, eating and doing?

Check out the other regions I’ve highlighted: Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares . If you’re looking for other great blogs on the Canaries, don’t miss Gran Canaria Local or Island Momma.

Each month for the next 14, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month! Next up for August is Cantabria.

Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock (or, why my country confuses me)

When my phone buzzed with a friend inquiring where I was, I had an excuse for being late: I was overwhelmed with being back in the US and had gone to get a coffee. Then I got overwhelmed again with how to order that and settled on whatever it was that the woman gave me.

“Yeah, sorry. America confused me, so I consoled myself with a gallon of coffee.” I then proceeded to be perplexed by the El’s new card system and nearly walked onto a southbound train rather than heading up to Lakeview.

Two weeks into my American foray, I’m still feeling like Cady Heron in ‘Mean Girls,’ and even my friends who have known me for years are puzzled by my being puzzled by America. I have become the adorable foreign girl who squeals over brunch, IPAs and oversized supermarkets and who answers the same questions day after day:

“You mean there’s internet in Spain?” Duh, how would I maintain this blog?!

“Let’s go for tacos! Wait, you’re probably sick of them.” I WISH I had that problem.

As I’m focusing on party planning and COMO launching, I find myself making rookie mistakes when it comes to American life. 

As my sister puts it: America, 364. Cat, 0. For the first time ever, I can honestly say that my American way of life is all but a thing of the past. Apparently 22 years count for next to nothing but my native tongue, and even that seems to be getting lost in a flurry of British expressions and colorful Spanish interjections.

Cash is all but a foreign concept

In Spain, I always carry cash on me and try not to use bills over 50€. In America, you can pay with your debit card, your cell phone and probably the promise of your first-born. As a matter of fact, I’ve only taken out money once in two weeks!

Condiments puzzle you

In a country where mayonnaise is king, this just made me nervous:

Ranch dressing on a Wisconsin brat? I just can’t.

You try to pay in any other currency but American dollars

Going along with the money issue, I’ve accidentally accounted out European coins or forked over my remaining 20€ bill for a gyro. The woman behind the counter gave me a confused look and then launched into an interrogation about how I got the money, how much a gyro platter would cost in Spain and do they even eat gyros over there? My food was practically cold when she was finished.

You ask silly questions like, “Can I use debit here?” or “How will we get groceries if it’s Sunday?”

My Spanish timetable is now a well-oiled machine, so getting a new cell phone on a Sunday and running to the grocery store at midnight is blowing my mind and upping my productivity.

People judge you for having a beer with lunch or wanting to sleep immediately after

In the US, I am usually the one who skips drinking with meals and only need a day or two to adjust to chow times and a conservative grandma, but not this time around. Naps and cervecitas still figure in to a part of my day.

Driving an automatic car is a challenge (and it’s twice the size of Monty)

I keep reaching for a gear shift and trying to push down the clutch. In fact, my sister told me I’d been demoted from driving after I got lost in O’Hare airport (which is one big loop) and was late picking her up. I should also say I’m driving a minivan, so that in of and itself merits a lunchtime beer and nap.

You walk away from a counter without tipping (and after freaking out over a) how big the beers are and b) how much they cost) 

You see, there’s a reason why I usually skip a midday beer – they’re costly! And then, once you factor in tip, it’s not even worth it.

America, pay your wage workers something decent so I don’t feel like a terrible person when I walk away when I forget to tip.

People say hi to you everywhere you go, and you give them your best sevillana stink face

I was the type of person to say hello any time I went into a store and I normally chat up strangers. You can imagine the surprise when people were allowing me to cross the street with my dogs or just waving hello. My confused face is strangely like my sevillana stink face.

It’s freezing

Afternoon showers and 75° weather? Wearing a jacket in late July? Lake effect? Chicago is cold, and I’m not adjusting to the air-con being on all the time.

The joy that is texting for free, and abusing that freedom

Americans have not embraced whatsapp – I’ll send my mom on my favorite free texting system, and she’ll respond with a text message rather than directly replying. I asked why, and she reminded me that texting plans are really generous. Oh, right.

Just as I’m starting to get settled in and remembering cultural cues, I realize that the Novio is coming to visit on Friday for two weeks, which means I’ll practically undo everything I’ve assimilated in these past few weeks. But it also means more siestas!

How are you adjusting to life in your home country after time abroad? Any good stories to share?

Americana Overload: A Weekend at Road America

It’s a family legend that my father took my mother to a swap meet on their first date. A blind date.

Nancy, a sworn non-drinker, coped by downing piña coladas before noon.

While Don hasn’t exactly passed along his love of old hot rods to his eldest, one of my favorite things to do with my dad is hit classic car shows in his ’57 Vette and scope out muscle cars.

When my dad mentioned my early arrival date would allow me to accompany him to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, I jumped at the chance. Things had been stressful since my grandpa’s passing, and I needed a few days’ break from a new house, issues with my Spanish bank and technology. I immediately cancelled plans I’d made with friends.

What I really needed was a good old dollop of Americana, the familiar lull of V8 motors and little else to do but stare at a lake with a beer in my hand.

When my dad went to college in Wisconsin, Elkhart Lake was halfway in between his hometown and his college town. For my entire life, he’s been spinning stories of the good old days when he and his friends would moon girls from the pier, stir up trouble at Siepkin’s Pub and sleep it all off the next day (yeah, I know, apple doesn’t fall from the tree). 

The town of Elkhart Lake sits along the north and west boundaries of the lake and was made famous in the 1950s, when road racing on the back county roads began to draw crowds. After a proper track was inaugurated in 1955, amateurs began racing vintage cars in time trials on the 4.5-miles track. Road America‘s classic car weekend is the biggest bash of the year, and the three days where my dad and his buddies meet up.

On Friday night, we met my Uncle Bill, cooler stocked full of beers, water and snacks for the weekend. The town was crawling with people – most decked out in Harley Davidson or Road America tees – with the token koozie and beer belly. After the hot rods roared through town, we carried our roadies down the main drag, where old-time, mom-and-pop shops sidled up to a curb-less road that once served as the finish line to the original road race.

Three bands rocked at the three bars, and after about a gazillion gallons of beer (what a sip of fresh air compared to two years of non-stop Cruzcampo), I belted out Journey until my voice was raw with my cousin and his friend.

Welcome home, Cat. 

My hangover the next morning was Unwelcome, but a reality as I sipped on a coffee without milk and watched the morning Milwaukee news. Don tossed me a hat and told me to get dressed to go see the track. I put on a cute dress and not-so-sensible shoes (though I would have done better with clothes that were way too tight and even LESS sensible shoes!).

“Oh, you meant go watch the races?” Oops. Apparently the time trials began at 7am, so we were running late. We paid $50 each to gain access, and my dad drove me right away to Turn 3 for the Ultimate breakfast sandwich. Capital U: a Sheboygan butter roll topped with Sargento cheddar and a specially made patty of bacon and brat. Doesn’t get any more ‘Sconsin than this sandwich.

Back in the ’70s when my dad and Ken would camp out at nearby Plymouth Rock, they’d watch the cars come down a shallow slope, nearly run themselves off the track at Turn 3, then speed off down the straightest part of the course. Back then, the course didn’t have barricades, and you could literally feel the cars rumbling in your chest.

I found the noise and the speed and the legendary rumble to be mesmerizing.

I followed my dad and uncle to the Pit and to a Bud heavy, where we watched the finish line. Don kept track of the leading cars around the six-lap track, where I just thought about how cool it was that he’d watch the course and its environs change over the last 40 years or so as I snacked on a Johnsonville Brat.

After two years of beginning to feel sevillana, one weekend, torque, and an endless array of condiments was all it took to remember I’m a corn-fed Midwesterner with a love of beef and hooch-mamma spotting.

What makes you feel really American when you’re home? Do you like going to car shows or car races?

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