Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Pennsylvania Thanksmas

Since I would not be coming home for Christmas this year, my family and I decided to use my Thanksgiving trip to create a hybrid holiday were we decorated the tree while watching the Macy’s parade, exchanged presents over our turkey dinners, and made yet another attempt at creating the perfect gingerbread house (third time really is a charm!) over pumpkin pie. It’s quite amazing how stress-free and enjoyable the holiday season can be when you have already bought and distributed your gifts a month before Christmas Day! All things considered, the first ever Suponcic Thanksmas turned out to be a great holiday, although it could have only been better if my brother was able to get home for it and – as is always the case – I had just a little more time to spend with family and friends.

Friday, November 21, 2008


I had been to Greece a few years ago on an island hopping vacation, but I was very excited to go back and finally visit the most famous tourist site in Athens that I had neglected to see on my first trip – the Acropolis, which I learned actually means “city on the edge.” For purposes of defense, ancient civilizations built the nucleus of their cities, the citadel, on higher ground hence the steep hike you have to take to see the iconic image everyone thinks of when you say “acropolis” -- the Parthenon, a temple to the Greek goddess Athena.
My hotel wasn’t too far and the weather was a very mild 65 degrees, so I walked there. On the way I saw many areas that I remembered exploring on my first visit, and I was immediately struck by how much slower the pace was without the tourist influx. The Acropolis complex was virtually empty by the time I got there so I was really able to take my time and look around at my leisure. On the way up to the Parthenon there are all sorts of ruins of old theaters, sculptures, cathedrals, etc. to look at, but of course none of that was anything compared to the temple itself. The view alone was magnificent but combined with the realization that I was standing in the same spot, and looking at the same structures, as ancient - as in 5 B.C. anciet - Grecians it was really something to behold.
This time around I felt I also got to see the true Athenian personality, and I have to say it wasn’t very welcoming! People were not as warm, friendly, or helpful as I remembered – everyone from the hotel staff to restaurant waiters had an air of no-nonsense abruptness about them. I guess the Athenian hospitality goes on hibernation for the winter.
The first night in town, we went out to fantastic Italian (go figure!) dinner with our local partners. Between wrapping up the day’s work and the horrendous Athens traffic it was already 10pm by the time we sat down to our meals. Apparently this was not uncommon for a regular Wednesday night because all throughout our meal people, some even with small children, were just being seated. Some were only getting their meals as we were enjoying our ouzo at midnight!
There is no doubt that Greece is definitely one of the more unique countries in Europe.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sinterklaas Day

Sinterklaas Day, or St. Nicholas Day, is a unqiue Dutch tradition. Sinterklaas is always dressed as the bishop he once was, but he isn't thought of religiously, instead as a kind, old man, whose feast day is observed by exchanging gifts and making good-natured fun of each other.
Sinterklaas lives in Spain and there spends most of the year recording the behavior of Dutch kids while his helper, Black called because of the chimney soot he gets on himself visiting homes...stocks up presents. In mid-November, "Sinterklaas season" kicks off when the patron saint of sailors, merchants, and of course, children, arrives to a harbor town in the Netherlands where he is greeted by the Mayor and all the townspeople and then he parades through the town on his white horse handing out gingerbread cookie treats to everyone.
In Amsterdam, Sinterklaas helpers -- the Black Piets -- repell from the walls of department stores!
Children leave carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas's horse and when Black Piet visits, they get a small gift or some candy in exchange.
All gifts given on Sinterklaas Day must be wrapped in a creative way and have a poem for the recipient attached. The giver is supposed to remain anonymous as all presents technically come from Sinterklaas.
It's like an early Christmas Eve, as most people get out of work early and a big dinner is served with chocolate letters - the first initial of each person's name - marking their place setting.

Friday, November 14, 2008


All I knew of Malta is that it is an island in between Italy and Africa, so it was quite a pleasent surprise when I heard I would be working there. One of the first things I learned is that this used to be a British colony so there are several English influences, such as driving on the left side of the road and English is the second national language.
I was excited by all the ocean views as we drove from the airport to my hotel, but I was surprised that all the buildings were the same bland, beige color. It was obvious that I wasn't really visting at the best time of year, the only tourists there were no less than 70 years old and there were several dreary storms. It was nice and warm overall though, and I could see that when it's sunny it is a very pretty place although I wouldn't exactly call it tropical.
The first morning, I took one of the iconic 1950s-style, yellow buses for 50 cents from my hotel in St. Julians to the capital city of Valletta, approximately 30 minutes away. It was interesting to see all the cathedrals on the ride and once in Valletta, and of courses all the long hilly streets from which you can see all the way down to the harbor. There wasn't a lot of time to see things on this trip, but I did manage the Church of St. Paul's Shipwreck, which dates from the 16th century and celebrates St. Paul's AD60 shipwreck in Malta, which lead to the introduction of Christianity to the Maltese. Inside the church are bones from the saint's wrist, and the column on which he was said to have been beheaded in Rome.
That evening I walked down to the Spinola Bay inlet and had my first taste of a traditional Maltese dish, rabbi in garlic. It wasn't too bad, but I didn't really appreciate having to eat it with my hands as the waitress instructed but when in Malta...
On my way to the airport the next day I got a glimpse of the very interesting Malta countryside and the 3000 year old city of Mdina. I didn't have the time to explore this trip, but I will definitely when I come back in January!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Helsinki (Finland) & Tallinn (Estonia)

Kopervos, my friend in Milan, and I decided to take a weekend trip together, so we looked at the map of Europe and selected our next destination, Helsinki, Finland. I had been very eager to visit Scandinava so I was so excited to finally be going. It was only early November but we were disappointed not to see snow considering how far north, and close to Russia (even moreso than when I visited Latvia) we were, but we certainly had the same cold to experience!
Our first stop was the main shopping strip on Pohjoisesplanadi. Our first discovery was the country's oldest department store, Stockmann, which had ever Finnish souvenir imaginable! We got completely lost admiring all the porcelin and woodcrafts. On the way to Kauppatori, the market square, where vendors sold fish, produce, fruits, and handicrafts such as reindeer antler bottle openers and all sorts of winter accessories, wool gloves, ponchos, fur hats, etc., we saw the mermaid statue fountain, Manta, which we read is commonly regarded as the symbol of Helsinki.
After the market, we went to Senaatintori, the central square that is modeled after Russia's St. Petersburg, to see the Tuomiokirkko (photo above), Lutheran cathedral, and famous Helsinki meeting point of the steps in front.
It wasn't yet noon and the city didn't seem to be offering much more for us -- I get the impression that Christmastime and summer are the best to visit Finland -- so we decided to check into the ferry we had heard about that went over to Estonia. We were thrilled to find that we were just in time for the afternoon service so we bought our tickets and set sail across the Gulf of Finland.

2 hours later we deboarded in the charming city of Tallinn. We only visited old town and the whole time it very much felt like we were in a medieval village.
We strolled the quaint, cobble stone streets looking at all the tourist shops and outdoor vendor stalls. Kopervos was looking at the wool ponchos, but quickly realized they weren't the form fitting type she was hoping for. We made our way to the city wall for views that reached way down to the harbor, saw the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and found the Olde Hansa restaurant the authentic period restaurant serving such interesting foods as bear, elk, and wild boar sausages with sauerkraut, forest berry, and horse radish cottage cheese, with beautiful medieval style live music setting just the right mood in this cozy restaurant.
Sunday in Helsinki was all about shopping, we spent the morning at the Arabia porcelin factory outlet where I picked up a set of beautiful iittala tea cups and saucers. We went back to Stockmann to pick up some of the intricate handicrafts we had seen the day before.
All in all it was a great weekend spent exploring some great places with a really great friend!