To top them all

On Saturday morning, after Andrew whips up golden squares of tangy french toast and the kitchen is set back to clean, we’ll drink a third cup of coffee and laze peacefully as the sun streams into our east facing windows.  Sometimes we sit at the table and chat about our day, what we’ll do, whether we have obligations or if we’re free to nap and catch up on our Netflix queue.  Other times, Andrew lugs his laptop over to the couch while I stay and read at the table.  I’ve noticed how acutely his behavior changes when he props up on the blue hand-me-down sofa. His feet quit moving and his fingers aren’t tapping rapidly over the keyboard.  He holds his coffee up to his face, feels the steam rise up over his forehead and stares intently at the screen.  His eyes glint or he’ll chuckle in disbelief, and I know there is only one thing he could be doing. Reading wiki travel forums, he’s thinking about the lowest price he’s seen on a flight to Montevideo recently, or about what certain phrases in Spanish are inappropriate to say in Mexico.  He’s left Knoxville, vacated our square patch of space on the 7th floor, and flown to south to Sao Paolo or east across the Atlantic to Pamplona.

The Rhein

As much as Andrew loves the rush of boarding a plane to step out into the chaos of another country, figuring out exactly where to stay and researching the history of our latest destination is just as exhilarating for him. He joyously scours forums for the cheapest flight he can find to a location he considers worth our time and pushes the buy button faster than I can decide whether I’ll wear that $35 pair of shoes at TJMAXX enough to justify the purchase. Once our destination is set, the real challenge begins:  choosing the perfect accommodation.  With regular folks’ uncensored opinions about their experiences on major booking sites, not only do you have a good idea of what to expect when you get there, choosing a hotel is also entertaining.  Other travelers readily share whether the receptionist is a pig or the most helpful lass on Main Street, whether the double bed that was advertised is the size of a twin bed and lumpier than cottage cheese, and most importantly, if the breakfast consisted of day old pastries from a package and reheated coffee or if the hard cooked eggs came to the table warm and with hand-whipped butter for your toast.

Rhein picturesque town

Three requirements sit at the top of Andrew’s list when choosing a hotel: it must have a buen relación calidad precio, (a useful Spanish phrase that tells of the price to quality ratio) be spotless (ok, my requirement-which is probably the first to suffer as we’ve definitely found that stray hair tucked between the sheets or stuck to the side of the bathtub) and have a hearty breakfast included.  Scouting out the place that meets all three criteria requires patience, vigilance and intuition that only a real deal hunting traveler has.  When all the factors align to allow us to check into the perfect accommodation on our budget travelling wallet, Andrew is pleasantly pleased with his effort and I’m happy to travel alongside another day.

Rhein area/Germany

Nowhere is it easier to find a bed and breakfast or small, family run hotel that meets all our criteria than in Germany.  After all, German culture prizes cleanliness and efficiency, but also knows how to elaborate simple quality ingredients into a gourmet brunch.  It would be a shame for you to not follow Andrew’s booking criteria when travelling in Germany.  A small, sparse room, with comfortable bedding (practically every hotel in Germany makes the bed with a duvet cover for each guest and no sheets-it’s almost exotic) and a shining, well-equipped bathroom shouldn’t cost more than 70 euros, and then less if you decide to be a rural tourist.  Your stay must include breakfast, as this is an ideal time to, hopefully, speak a little with the owners of the establishment and to observe other German tourists shamelessly feast for longer than you thought possible at the breakfast table.

Gorgeous Fachwerk

The breakfast itself is what is truly impressive though.  Platters of cold cuts chilling over trays of ice and thin slices of mild cheese to start, along with wedges of tomato and rounds of cucumbers, fresh baked brötchen from the local Bäckerei, made with nutrient rich whole wheat flour and flecked with seeds, smeared with rich, creamy butter.  Ramekins of homemade jams made with fruit picked from the backyard are a staple of the buffet and a hard-boiled egg, flawless white with the yolk bold yellow, still warm inside mean a genuine Deutsches frühstuck. For the second round helping, a dish of whole milk plain yogurt, crunchy granola and berries the color of sparkling rubies.  Equally as good as the food is the coffee, from a french press or a drip-pot, but brewed with beans that were ground that very morning and served in your own carafe to keep at your table. Andrew’s french toast is mighty tasty and a German breakfast tops them all.

At the Lorelai, Rhein River

After indulging in sticky sweet jams and warm buttered rolls, it’s out into the new adventure awaiting us outside the hotel.  And, while our hotel booking requirements may seem stringent, they do help keep us well-rested and well-caffeinated, two essentials of a vacation that bring happy, HD color memories.

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Coffee

Sometimes, coffee is what makes waking up worth the bother. Andrew generally sets our pot the night before and its ready for me to hit the button when I stumble into our chilly kitchen before the sun comes up (okay, okay, sunrise here is at about 8:30am, so you can get up past a reasonable hour and still be in darkness. And, honestly, I hardly ever get up before 8:30am in Spain, so above, I’m exaggerating a wee-bit). I’ve got a long history with the liquid that helps to waken my brain in the morning, even though 22 year olds don’t really have a long history with much of anything. But, my most recent memories always involve coffee whether directly or indirectly. In fact, this time two years ago, Andrew took me on our first date, to have a cup of black coffee, spiked with real cream at the Brookwood Mall O Henry’s location.

University life at Samford was studded by the mid-afternoon call for a Starbucks run to indulge in my favorite beverage of all time, the sacred soy milk-latte. Unfortunately, this luxury has since become a longing of the past, except on those blessed occasions that someone gives me gift card. Spending more than four hard earned dollars on a calorie dense drink just doesn’t jive anymore (I realized I was paying for it in 30-minutes of real-live working time, either at the bank or on the treadmill). My coffee fixes were more often satisfied by hurrying over to the O Henry’s installation at Samford, quickly ordering the brew of the day and half jog-walking to make it to class on time. The best mornings, though, were the ones when class started at 10:30 am and I had time for a 7am run followed by drinking an entire carafe of French pressed coffee myself.  Endorphin’s plus caffeine make for a decent day, no matter what is on the schedule.

Much of the way I think about coffee has been influenced heavily by travel. My first summer in Germany, one of the rituals I loved the most was the way my host-mom would make coffee. First, she boiled the water in an electric kettle. While the water boiled, she filled her French press carafe with the appropriate amount of ground coffee and later, after the water was steaming, she’d pour it over the grounds and let the coffee steep for 4-5 minutes. Then she’d press down the filter, pushing the grounds to the bottom of the glass jar and leaving behind a dark rich coffee and a thin foam head, ready for sipping. I like mornings alone quite well, and when she’d leave before I was awake and ready for coffee, she’d make the coffee and sweetly leave it covered with a misshapen pillow-cover over the carafe to keep it warm. I’d scamper into the kitchen and marvel at the table, set just for me, with a full carafe of coffee, beautiful fresh summer berries and yogurt. Since then, French press has always been my favorite way to make coffee.

I also remember fondly afternoon Kaffee und Küchen in Germany. If you ever get the chance to visit Germany, especially Bayern, in the summer, spend your afternoons in a café drinking a foamy Milchkaffee and eating a thick slice of a fruit flecked cake and spend your evenings at the local Biergarten.

Spain also has a coffee tradition, but one that I can’t seem to embrace quite as readily. First, almost all of the bars where one normally orders a coffee look entirely the same. A wooden bar dominates the middle of the space, surrounded by 50’s style diner stools with a red colored cushion and plain tables for four dotting the perimeter of the room. The counter of the bar will almost always display a variety of tortilla slapped on a thick slice of bread underneath a sinister looking glass case that keeps customer’s germs from reaching the food. I realize that a café is only the location where one can find a quick fix for a coffee craving, but sometimes, when I pay an outrageous amount for an espresso shot, I think a little atmosphere in which to enjoy it is in order. A place where the barista is friendly and a little hippy looking, where the coffee is lovingly prepared and has been roasted carefully and professionally, where the chairs to sit are comfortable and unique, and the background noise is soft calming music of some sort, not voices screeching in Spanish about the worst of the crisis. 

Another fact about Spanish coffee drinking habits that I utterly loathe is the manner in which a coffee is taken. The one I’m most familiar with was taught to me at school. Each day, students and teachers alike are given a thirty minute recreo, a break that can be spent however you want and wherever you want. Normally, this is when the educators wander outside, off the school premises, to partake in a coffee. I’ve accompanied them quite a few times, but I never seem to enjoy the experience. It feels like a race to sprint across the park, to the café, order a small milk-coffee, pay and rush back before time to start class. It seems to me that, if you have to pay for a coffee, it is much better enjoyed over a longer amount of time without the hassle. In this particular instance, I’d much rather have a community pot back in the teacher’s lounge. I’d pour a weak cup of dismissively brewed liquid and quietly nurse it for the full thirty minute period until it was back to the war inside the classroom.

Another fact to note: when ordering coffee in Europe, especially Spain, you’ve got to change your expectations. Cafés don’t recognize the drip coffee pot method of brewing or the fact that beans grown in different geographical locations taste different or that the roasting method is all important. Instead, almost every coffee drink you could order will be centered around an espresso shot, which almost always tastes exactly the same. Your options are the following: a plain espresso shot (café sólo), a café con leche, which is an espresso shot plus steamed whole milk, a mediano, which is a smaller version of the aforementioned option, or an americano (espresso + water). I also think you can order a cappucino, but I don’t hear this happening too often.

Coffee at home has always been a staple in our household, but we’ve had to hurdle a few obstacles to get it right here. Our piso came equipped with an Italian cafetera. This was okay for about three weeks, but the main problem was that the percolator only made enough for two cups of coffee. One mug for each of us in the morning just wasn’t enough. So, we splurged and bought a drip coffee maker that has an eight cup capacity. This in itself was a good move, but then we realized the ground coffee sold at the store was about the same quality as Target brand coffee. Hmm, not so hot. We make do and sometimes we’re lucky enough for a package sent from home to have a couple bags of ground Starbucks coffee. For now, to solve all my coffee issues, I guess I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a classy café, even hope for a coffee off the dollar menu at McDonald’s and wait to cherish the first real coffee when I get home.