There’s No Friend Like An Old Friend

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school experience. For the next little while, I’ll be posting a purely self-indulgent* series of essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Twenty-five years ago this summer, I made my first trip to Europe. My destination was Greece. I’d pulled $100 out of every paycheque for a year, scrimped and saved, and on July 19 in the year 1989, I put myself on an Air Canada flight to Athens. Twenty-five years ago, I also met my good friend Kieran from Birmingham.

As well as my initial foray into Europe, Greece was my first encounter with the vaguely criminal nature of taxi drivers. I stumbled off the plane in Athens and into the clutches of a cabbie who charged me $50 CDN to be dropped off at a place that was nowhere near my hotel. This is a story for another time, but it’s the early catalyst for this post’s travel hacking tips.

Oh Greece, How I Loved You
Given that my introduction to Greece was taxi-generated robbery followed by culture shock (I’d never been in a non-English-speaking country), I spent the first 48 hours thinking I’d made a serious mistake.

But it got better. Much better. I had booked myself on a tour called the “Greek Island Wanderer” with a British company called Explore (they actually still run this tour) and I consider this to be — quite literally — the best money I’ve ever spent.

Once my roommate arrived, I had someone to share my culture shock with, which helped immensely. And two days later, we were on our way to the Cycladic Islands. I remember stepping off the ferry onto Syros, looking around, and thinking “Aha! Here you are!” Here, indeed, was the idyllic travel-agency-poster version of Greece that I’d been dreaming about every night for the past six months.

The Explore tour took us to all kinds of off-the-beaten-path places and left us plenty of time to roam around on our own. And even though our group spanned a very broad range of ages (and levels of sanity), we had an enormous amount of fun together. I stayed in touch with several of the wanderers, including Kieran from Birmingham, who I swapped letters and parcels with for years afterward.

Sadly, I am as good at losing contact information as I am at losing bread recipes and I fell out of touch with Kieran just before the ten-year mark. Our last contact was 1998, not long after he’d gotten married and had a little girl.

And then one morning in 2011, I opened a Facebook message that started with “Hi! You don’t know me but you know my Dad ….” It was Kieran’s daughter, now an internet-savvy teenager, and she’d located me on behalf of her father. Seriously, how cool is that?

When I planned this summer’s epic voyage to Europe, I made sure to include a side trip to Birmingham, where I got to have a joyful reunion with my old friend, and meet his wonderful wife and daughter for the first time.

Their hospitality was legendary. They let me stay with them, took me out for dinner, and didn’t worry when my still-jetlagged self slept until mid-morning. Then they showed me around Birmingham and made sure that I tasted the best sausage rolls in England. When we went to the airport, I extracted a promise from my lovely friends that they would seriously consider visiting Canada before too long.

The Lesser-Known Rewards of Travel
Travel writers will talk a lot about expanding your horizons, feeding your soul and so on. But it’s not often that travel writers talk about the friendships we make when travelling. Kieran had kept all of his photos and memorabilia from our trip around the islands, and we spent several hours roaming through the pictures, laughing, trying to remember names and dredging kooky stories out of our dusty memories.

There was Irish Michael, Crazy Joe and a couple we had nicknamed Flora and Fauna. And there was me, so hung over one morning that I forced my roommate to have breakfast on a seawall (in case I threw up), and Kieran, who’d had a sweet travel romance with a quiet girl named Mary.

Tours form themselves into a sort of temporary mini-society. You might not like everyone, but if you’re lucky (and I always have been), you’ll leave your tour with warm, heartfelt memories of most everybody. Such is the case with Kieran. I’m exceptionally blessed to have had the opportunity to recapture my friendship with him, and in the same space, to have had his help to reach back into a couple of weeks in my life that were absolutely magical.

Taxicab 101
And … now that I’ve made you sit through another chatty, rambling story, let’s talk taxi.

Although I’m sure they aren’t all bad people, cab drivers have a universally bad reputation. In general, I’m pretty cautious with them and these are my tips for handling taxis when you’re travelling:

  • The first rule of Taxi Club is don’t take taxis. Seriously. You learn a lot about a city when you’re walking through it, or using its public transit system. Save your money for exotic local food, exotic local drinks and wacky souvenirs.
  • And if you have to take a taxi, ask. If you’re going to or coming from a hotel or a hostel, ask about fares before you flag down or call the taxi. Staff will usually know the rough fare between their location and common destinations like airports and train stations.
  • The second rule of Taxi Club: when your cab arrives, ask what the fare will be before you get into the car. If there’s a discrepancy, point out that your hotel says that the fare should only be “X” dollars. The cab driver will always argue, but my experience is that this exchange alone seems to curb the impulse to run up the meter.
  • Unless you’re hauling huge suitcases, keep your luggage with you and get into the back seat of the cab.
  • And if there’s a serious dispute, have the driver stop the car. Then get out with your bags and tell the driver to wait while you find a police officer.
    (***Note that this is a very drastic move, and one that I recommend only be undertaken in broad daylight and a well-populated area, only if the driver is attempting an extreme rip-off, and only if you feel that you can do it safely.)
  • Make sure that you’re being dropped off at your actual destination before you pay (see the introduction to this post).
  • And finally, just accept that a less-than-honest taxi trip will happen from time to time. This summer, I think I got slightly ripped off by a Roman cab driver. However, it was a fare of 10 euros including tip, and it bought me enough time to see three lesser-known Caravaggio paintings. 10 euros is about 15 dollars CDN. That’s $5 per Caravaggio. Worth it? Totally.


A Primer on Pyrohy

Hello and Ласкаво просимо!

(If your browser can handle Cyrillic lettering, you’ll see a pair of unusual words up there. You pronounce this “laskavo prosīmo” and it means “Welcome!” in Ukrainian.)

Today, I’m following up on a request from a reader in Australia who wants to learn how to make pyrohy.

First things first. What are pyrohy? (Most often, you will hear non-Ukrainian speakers pronounce this word as “perogies”.) Pyrohy (or perogies) are wonderful little round dumplings made of a lightweight dough and stuffed with all kinds of imaginative savoury fillings. You can bake, boil or fry them and they are most often served with butter, onions and sour cream.

I live in Alberta, one of the western provinces of Canada. Alberta was largely settled by immigrants from the Ukraine and they have left an indelible stamp on the cuisine of my home. I, for one, am very grateful for this influence. I love pyrohy and their cousins, holubtsi (cabbage rolls) and nalysynky (crepes). I’m sure that I’ve eaten at least my body weight in these yummies over the course of my life.

So, I’m not surprised at all that someone in Australia wants to learn how to make them.

Here are my pyrohy, in all their pillowy goodness,  ready to be boiled

Here are my pyrohy, in all their pillowy goodness,
ready to be boiled

And Then the Truth Comes Out …
But I’m embarrassed to admit that the only time I eat homemade pyrohy is when someone else makes them. The rest of the time, I buy pre-fab ones.

Now that I’ve cleared my conscience, the next thing I can tell you is that I hit up my home library in search of a book that would teach me the finer points of making them by hand. “A Feast of Perogies and Dumplings” by Samuel Hofer fit the bill perfectly. This little book was a veritable encyclopedia of Eastern European carbohydrate treats.

I tested out Samuel’s “No Fail Perogy Dough” recipe and then created an adaptation that worked for life hacking. Here it is, step-by-step:

Get two medium-sized potatoes, scrub them (don’t take off the skins) and then cut them into 1/2″ pieces
Put them on to boil and let them cook until they’re reasonably soft. While they’re cooking, you can:
a) cook any other ingredients (like sauteed mushrooms) or
b) start the dough
Here’s my dough recipe:

  • Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a bowl.
  • Beat 1 egg into the butter.
  • Take 1/4 cup of water from the boiling potatoes, add to it 1/4 cup of cold milk. Beat the milk and water into the butter-egg mixture.
  • Throw in 1/4 teaspoon of salt and stir
  • Begin adding all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup at a time. By the time you get to about 1 1/2 cups, you should have a dough that’s starting to form a ball. Keep adding until you have a ball that sticks together.
  • Cover your bowl of dough and set it aside for about 20 minutes to rest.
While the dough is resting, mash your potatoes very well, and beat in about 1/3 cup of milk or cream or sour cream. Once the potatoes are reasonably smooth, you can add some fillings. The dough recipe makes about 18 pyrohy, so you can make more than one kind of filling, if you like. These are what I experimented with blending into my potatoes:

  • Basil and asiago cheese
  • Sauteed mushrooms and truffle oil (I found a small bottle of truffle oil for $10 at the Italian Centre Shop in Edmonton)
  • Chopped smoked salmon, dill and cream cheese

These were all very, very good, but feel free to experiment with your own creative ideas. (And then make sure to write and tell me what you did.)

Once the dough has rested, pull it from its lazy slumber and get out your rolling pin. Roll out the dough until it’s about 1/8″ thick.
Now you need something circular that’s between 3″ and 3 1/2″ wide. (Jar lids and very small plates work well.) Use your circular thing to cut the dough into round pyrohy wrappers. Once you’ve cut out as many as you can, you can start building your pyrohy.
This next step is a little fiddly, but it’ll make a difference to the speed of your work, and the quality of your finished product. Wet down a paper towel and drape it over all but three of the cut pyrohy. This will keep the dough from drying out while you’re assembling.
Place a tablespoon of filling in the center of your wrapper, stretch the dough so that the edges meet and pinch to seal. (If you’re worried about the edges not staying stuck together, put a small glass of milk at your workspace, and use your index finger to trace a small line of milk around half the wrapper, to act as a sealant.)
Once you’ve filled and sealed up this first round, mash the scraps of dough together and then roll again. You should get about eighteen pyrohy wrappers from this recipe.
You’re in the home stretch! From here, your pyrohy can be either boiled or pan-fried. Boiling will take between 5 and 7 minutes. If you panfry them, brown one side and then flip them over to brown the other side. And I recommend butter.
Serve them with more butter, sour cream, fried onions and crumbled bacon. And marvel at how something so simple can make a person sublimely happy.
Pyrohy also lend themselves remarkably well to being “tossed”. Try lightly frying up some garlic, green onion, capers and sun-dried tomatoes. Toss your freshly-boiled pyrohy in the saute. Put sour cream on the side, and prepare to swoon.

Show Me the Money
I tried making pyrohy multiple times, so I really can’t give you an exact price figure. Be assured, however, that these are not expensive to make. With the exception of the fillings, the bulk of the ingredients are staples in most kitchens. The extras ran me about $10.

Pre-fab pyrohy aren’t expensive either, but — like many of our experiments on this blog — there’s just no comparing between pre-fab and homemade. The homemade ones are about 127,000 times better. And given that they take about half an hour to create, it’s well worth it.

Library Resources
Samuel Hofer’s wonderful little book, alas, is no longer in print. The copy at my home library has also been taken out of circulation recently. However, I located an excellent fall-back in the form of “The New Ukrainian Cookbook” by Annette Ogrodnick Corona. She calls pyrohy by their alias, which is “varenyky” and there are 7 pages of varenyky recipes in this lovely, recipe-packed book. If you take the book out of the library instead of buying it, you’ll save yourself $19.75. Which is not bad at all.

And that’s it! Thank you for reading all the way down to the bottom of this very long post. If you’re reading this from Canada, let me take this opportunity to wish you a belated Happy Thanksgiving. Tune in again — in a few weeks’ time — for another travel essay!