Austria in 6 (or More) Cakes: The Pistachio Problem

Mozart torte at Cafe Aida by Pam Mandel

Mozart torte at Cafe Aida by Pam Mandel

For reasons that are hard to track down, the Mozart Kugel – Austria’s famous Mozart Ball chocolate – is filled with pistachio marzipan. Theory: Mozart made several journeys to Italy as a young man and while there, he became fond of pistachios which were commonly used in Italian desserts.

But.

The pistachio has been in trade since biblical times; it was a highly valued crop. So it’s also possible that pistachio is more random choice that relies on the nut’s identity as a luxury item – we’ll use pistachio because it’s fancy! Mozart is fancy! So, Mozart equals pistachio!

Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s not just about chocolates, it’s also about cake. There are two front runners in the Mozart-something cakes race, the Mozarttorte and …

Austria in 6 Cakes: Gingerbread Translated, Twice

“Lebkuchen” gets translated from German as “gingerbread,” but that’s not quite right. The word “gingerbread” sets expectations for it being the kind of stuff you’d build a house out of, though that variety does get used in edible architecture.

There are also those ubiquitous gingerbread hearts, decorated in icing sugar with your sweetheart’s name and a swooping script that says “Ich liebe dich” — I love you —  or maybe just “Greetings from this twee Germanic town.”

The stuff used to deliver messages or act as culinary sheetrock is all fine and well. But more interesting is a cakey sort of cookie packed with honey and spices and baked on top of what’s essentially a communion wafer — in much earlier days, …

Austria in 6 Cakes: The Kaiser’s Favorite Guglhupf

The Kaiser's Villa, Bad Ishcl

The Kaiser's Villa, Bad Ishcl

The Austrian town of Bad Ischl hit the spa scene in the early 19th century, but it became the Next Big Destination when Kaiser Franz Josef started using the location as his summer retreat. When Vienna’s weather became too oppressive in the summer time, the Kaiser and all his hangers on would pull up stakes for the cooler alpine climes of Austria’s Salzkammergut. The Kaiser’s entourage included his companion, the actress Katharina Schratt.

It’s said there was a secret path between the Kaiser’s summer place and Villa Schratt, the country home the Kaiser purchased for his lady friend. It can’t have been so secret if morning Kaiser sightings made the phrase, “Oh, the Kaiser’s had his guglhupf!” part of the vernacular. …

“Gringo Trails”: What Are Travelers Doing To The Places They Visit?

“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” –- Agent Smith, “The Matrix

Agent Smith could have been talking about the “morning after” footage in “Gringo Trails,” a new documentary by Pegi Vail and Melvin Estrella. The camera wanders down Thailand’s Haad Rin Beach after the Full Moon Party. The beach is littered with trash — water bottles, clothing, plastic bags -– and crashing partiers. Garbage sloshes up on the sand in the gentle surf. This beautiful stretch of sand, once completely unknown to travelers, is now punctuated with rubbish. The film illustrates some hard truths about mass travel, but I found it especially painful to watch this segment. It was embarrassing to the see the awful disregard for this once beautiful place. And it was sad, a weighty head-shaking sadness that left me questioning the results of my own backpacker traveling days. Was I this unaware? Did I spread the virus?
“Gringo Trails” looks at the impact backpackers have on places like Haad Rin. How were these places “discovered,” and how did they change as a result? What effect does the influx of tourists — the kind who insist they are not tourists — have on the environment and on the people? Are these travelers even aware that they leave their fingerprints all over the economy, the culture and the ecosystem of the places they visit?

Vail and Estrella aren’t issuing a blanket indictment of backpacker travel — Vail was a backpacker herself in the early 1980s. Her message is more educational. “When this type of travel started, we were completely unaware of the implications. But now, 20, 30 years later, we know. We know what happens, and we can share this information so it doesn’t happen in other places.”

The movie opens with the story of Yossi Ginsberg, an Israeli backpacker who was lost in the jungle near the village of Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. In 1985, Ginsberg wrote a book about his misadventures and how he was rescued. Rurrenabaque had been a small hub for adventure travelers, but Ginsberg’s book launched an influx of Israelis seeking their own version of that adventure.

The travelers in “Gringo Trails” seem to think of Ginsberg’s story as an amusement park ride, as something they should be able to access. An Israeli girl says, “Everybody wants to experience the life of the jungle . . . to have a little touch like in the book.” “I’m Indiana Jones,” says a Swedish backpacker from the seat of a crowded motor canoe. Ginsberg was lost. His life was in danger; he was lucky to be saved. And now travelers — inspired by his story — can pretend they are having a facsimile of his experience. With meals and camping and guides included.

The movie takes us to a number of different destinations, showing the change that backpackers bring when they open new regions to increasingly organized tourism. We see the archetypal travelers we’ve met in our own adventures: the traveler vs. tourist snobs, the beach hippies, the partiers. There are stories from Pico Iyer, Rolf Potts, Holly Morris and Prince Sangay Wangchuk about the tension between travelers’ values and the native values of the places we visit. Vail and Estrella take us around the world and show us, in archival footage shot over many years, exactly what we’ve done to the planet by being everywhere on it.

“The idea of adventure, to be in the jungle and surviving is an idea that spans a lot of different cultures, but most people don’t take it to the extreme,” says Vail. “They like the idea that they’re having this adventure, that they’re somehow surviving in the jungle . . . but I don’t think they think it through. They don’t really want to have that experience. People conflate the images. . . . it’s the completion of all these stories in the media that affect what our destination perspectives are and what we’re looking for.”

There’s a painful tension between the desire to have a great adventure — to share that adventure — and to protect a place as it is when we find it. In “Gringo Trails,” Costas Christ, editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler magazine and an early advocate of ecotourism, tells the story of “finding” Haad Rin in 1979. He admonished some fellow travelers, Germans, “Whatever you do, don’t tell people about this place.” In 2013, an estimated 30,000 people attended the Full Moon Party on Haad Rin Beach. Christ’s Germans may not have told, but the story got out.

In “Gringo Trails,” Vail travels around the world to show how travelers are affected by the romance of packaged travel stories in the media as well as through word of mouth. Adventure becomes a commodity. “It’s good value,” says Lina Brocchieri about her excursion to untouristed and exotic Timbuktu. She’s presumably speaking of the cocktail party caché she gains in mentioning her travels to this place so weighted with the extraordinary. But the reality of her experience is sobering and enlightening. Her presence makes no sense to the locals, and she begins to wonder why she is there.

“Romanticization is writ large . . . versus the reality of how people are living, the poverty,” says Vail, speaking of our preconceived notions as travelers. “I was hoping the film would have people think before they go.”

The film offers up some suggestions but no easy solutions to the change we invoke by merely being present in these faraway places. Ecotourism. Government regulation. A discussion of Bhutan’s visa program shows how the country has chosen to restrict travel to protect its cultural heritage. Ultimately, though, the responsibility lies with us as travelers. Our “high-value” experiences cost us money, but what’s the expense to the places we choose to visit? How do we reconcile our romantic images of the world with the truth of what our presence in those places means?

Adventure travelers and backpackers are often the front line. We crack these places open to the rest of the world. At our worst, we are looking for easy social mores, cheap booze, accessible drugs and a line on our résumés. How strange that we should fall into the role of de facto ambassadors for these places. But at our best, that’s what we are — ambassadors. “Gringo Trails” leaves the traveler shouldering the weight of that responsibility. How are we going to interpret the stories we hear, and what stories are we going to tell?

“I like seeing the changes,” says Vail, “in how people apply what they have learned. You can do something. Instead of just traveling through and gaining experiential capital, we can give back. It’s middle-class, upper-middle-class, travelers, if they say they’re on a budget or not. So there’s disparity between classes and cultures. Now, I think a lot of people are coming back are doing something.”

“It’s a fine line between the joy and the incredible experience of travel with the reality of local lives. I hope we can enjoy the film, think about why we love to travel and also, think responsibility. The hope is that it’s opening a conversation. This is a tremendously important topic. And it’s urgent, given that we’re all over the place in the world.”

“Gringo Trails” premieres on October 19, at 8:30 p.m. in the American Museum of Natural History during the Margaret Mead Film Festival. There’s a screening at North America’s largest environment film festival, the Planet In Focus Environmental Film Festival in Toronto November 21-24. Additional screening dates will be available on the Gringo Trails website.

Not Quite Legal Souvenirs

Food seized at Washington Dulles
USDA /Ken Hammond

Somewhere in a small town in an unnamed country is the complete skull of a crocodile and a small box of teeth that belong to that skull. The crocodile, who wasn’t using her teeth anymore, was not supposed to make this trip but did so anyway, without a passport, packed in the insulation of T-shirts stained with the red dust of the Australian Outback. The person who checked this partial crocodile knew there’d be some risk of having the bones and teeth seized at the border. Plus, hey, it was free, scooped up at a swampy turn out somewhere. No money changed hands in the acquisition of the croc skull.

What was to lose? Seizure at the border, a protestation of ignorance and slap on the wrist. “Sir, you can not import animal bones without proper documentation.” “I had NO idea, I am sorry, yes, of course, take it.”

It’s a risk. And make no mistake. You may very well be breaking the law. Travelers take it on because what’s the worst that can happen? Well, a lot. Best case? You’ll have your goods seized or maybe get tagged with an expensive fine. Consider yourself lucky if that’s the case.

Here are a handful of questionable souvenirs that seasoned anonymous travelers decided they’d try to get through customs.

Three kilos of flour: “…for culinary purity. When my friend asked me to bring corn flour, I didn’t think much about it, and then suddenly I found myself with two big bags of white powder in my checked luggage. Not only was I bringing in an unlabeled agricultural product, but it resembled something else entirely.”

The USDA allows you to bring in baking mixes and the like, but requirements are that it’s commercially packaged and properly labeled. Certainly, flour won’t set off the drug sniffer dogs, but explaining those bags of white powder isn’t something you want to find yourself doing in any airport.

Ten pounds of cheese: Cheese is tricky. Hard cheese is okay, soft cheese isn’t, and the USDA guidelines on what a hard cheese is or isn’t aren’t exactly clear – they say “like Parmesan or cheddar.” Brie is probably out, as is Camembert, but what about a blue cheese? Unlcear. Good luck.

Italian olives: “They are officially not okay to bring back, but I found some that were vacuum packed and decided to give it a go. I listed foodstuff on my customs form, and when the officer asked what kind I started off with all the things that I knew it was okay to bring back (wine, hard cheese, olive oil, etc.). By the time I mentioned the olives he had already tuned me out.”

It’s fresh fruit and veg where the trouble lies, packaged, processed products are less likely to raise eyebrows. But if you don’t declare your fruit or veg, it could potentially set you back a $300 fine, plus, oops, there go your olives.

Various kinds of meat: “I packed the salami wrapped in socks and tucked inside my shoes, and sailed past saying not one word.” Meat products are strictly regulated, with a mind towards preventing the spread of disease. Multiple travelers fessed up to squirreling all kinds of fancy product past the border, not just salami, but pate, rillette, prosciutto and more.

Bones, bones, more bones: “A llama vertebrae.” (Taste in souvenirs does vary.) The crocodile skull. A handful of seashells. Ivory and tortoise shells are especially tricky and require special documentation to prove their antiquity. This stuff is all governed by Fish and Wildlife in the US and, in some cases, can only come in through certain airports. To complicate things, there are additional guidelines for “Individuals Wishing to Import Non-Human Primate Trophies, Skins or Skulls” meaning should do your homework before tossing that monkey brain bucket into your bag.

Antiquities of any kind: “I snitched a tiny black and white marble mosaic tile from a heap that looked destined for Ostia Antica’s dump. I feel guilty, but 30 years on still love cradling in my palm something an ancient Roman once touched. It’s like holding hands across time.” Stolen cultural artifacts – that’s a big one.

There’s a useful page of information on the US Customs and Border Patrol site, including a Know Before You Go sheet that will send you into a rabbit warren of other places. What about that machete – is it legal? Probably, but you won’t get it past security in your carry-on. Plus, security, that’s a whole different can of worms.

Worms, by the way, will never make it past customs. Don’t even try.