Meals on Wheels-International Style

One of my favorite childhood memories is that of waiting for the Good Humor man to drive along our block on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx. He would come 3, sometimes 4 times a day. The first visit would be at 11:30 am. We would see him again in the afternoon and then once more after the dinner hour. When I got a bit older I learned that he also came by for a final pass late in the evening around 11pm to catch the teenage kids. If you had only 15 cents you would need to order the twin ice pops. But, if my mom sent me off with a quarter and a dime I could get my favorite, the chocolate éclair. That was my first introduction to street vendors and after that, I quickly progressed to Italian ices, pizza and my favorite, hot pretzels. But, it’s the variety of international cuisine that is available from mobile food vendors that can be surprising.  If you’ve ever been to New York City, you no doubt have seen the many food stalls that inhabit just about every street corner. If you’re in the mood for a walking meal or a snack you can choose from the humble hot dog or seasonal roasted chestnuts on steaming carts to skewered shish kebob. I’ve seen trucks with sides that roll up to expose multiple shelves of fruits and vegetables for those looking for healthier choices. The street vendor is such an ingrained part of the NYC experience that one hotel has anticipated a guest’s every need and added a food truck concierge to their staff. Now, that’s what I call service! Mobile food vendors are not unique to New York, nor are they limited to snack food. You won’t find a country, city or town without a vendor with a tray hanging from their neck or someone pushing a treat laden cart or attempting to do business from a basket on their bicycle. If there’s anything that might bring us closer to world peace, I’m certain that it will be our joint quest for a quick bite to eat.  A morning meal is certainly something that we all have in common. How we choose to break that fast can vary from city to country. However, expediency is key. I like my breakfast sweet so you would find me on line at a cinnamon bun or doughnut truck no matter what the country. Surprisingly the best breakfast pastries I’ve ever had were from street vendors in Hong Kong. While American dough tends to be lighter and flakier, the Asian pastries were just a bit denser and chewier. I liked that. In Korea, carts seem to be optional with many street vendors choosing to instead, lay their goods out on blankets on the sidewalks. Perhaps they can’t afford a cart.  I opted to sample an Asian pear, based upon its reputation and a recommendation from a well-travelled friend. It’s not a pretty fruit but is big and round looking more like a bloated version of the common Golden Delicious apple in U.S. grocery stores. I might have been a bit over zealous in my expectations, especially since generally, I don’t like American pears but at least I can now say with certainty that I don’t like Asian pears either. However, I really bought the pear for the experience of shopping local without the bothersome oversight of USDA regulations. The U.S. also has rigid rules when it comes to selling liquor but European street vendors quite often have some form of alcohol to offer. One of my favorites is a hot spiced red wine found in Germany and surrounding areas called Gluhwein. On a chilly day the warm wine definitely lifts your spirits and can be purchased on many street corners. The Czech Republic offers their version of mozzarella sticks with a treat called syr smazeny, a breaded chunk of Swiss or Gouda cheese sometimes served in a warm bun or sometimes served with fries. It’s hard to pronounce, always filling and definitely portable. If you were to hop across “the Pond” to England you would find that their street food is referred to as “take away” as in take away pizza. It’s a more literal version of our “take out” which sounds as though you were going on a date.  Even today in London you might spy a bloke eating his lunch from the folds of the Mirror paper. The iconic fish and chips a.k.a. French fries are often served in day old newspapers to absorb the extra frying oil with the added bonus of keeping you current on local events or gossip. Other international food carts carry local favorites that are familiar to us; in Turkey, you find kebabs of all types while in South Africa you find Boerewors, the local version of sausage. Then there’s the less familiar Bunny Chow, also an African dish which oddly has no bunny in it and is actually a chicken stew served in a hollowed out bun. Clearly, street food is not part of anyone’s weight loss strategy, unless you’re counting the effort it takes to walk to and from the carts. As with any trend, the rise in popularity of street food has caught the attention of celebrity chefs.Today’s local food shows seem to lean towards “shock and raw” where they ramp up the squeamish factor by allowing us to watch notable chefs journey around the world. We watch as they consult local cook books to prepare and sample “unusual” items such as insects while the majority of the population would consult a local phone book for the number of a reliable exterminator. Eating bugs, insects or creepy crawlies hasn’t gained the popularity in the states that it enjoys in many other nations and when I was recently offered fried ant eggs in Mexico, I declined. You can also kick back after work with a brew and some bugs in Thailand. I’d like to see that in the next Budweiser commercial. At the end of the day it’s all about finding something tasty, easy to grab and quick to eat so we can get on to dessert, which brings us right back to where I started, waiting for the Good Humor truck.

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Long ago when the airlines utilized travel agents to sell and write the majority of their flight tickets, we agents were their best friends. 11794550_10152964881321581_3130945167090441644_o.jpgThe airlines treated us well and extended a version of their employee benefits to us in the form of reduced airfare rates and sometimes, even free airline tickets. When a new and up and coming airline launched their international flights the offer of free transportation was extended to me. I eagerly took advantage of their generosity and reserved flights to London, England, their home base. It was my very first transatlantic flight and going to London was like a dream come true. Airline travel was different then. It was generally seen as a luxury form of transportation where people had matching luggage and wore their best travel clothes to board. Those were the days when all of the passengers had attained a certain financial success and expected to be treated as such when airborne. And then along came me. I was very young, new to the travel industry and fairly green when it came to international destinations. My luggage didn’t match, there were no stamps in my brand new passport but I did wear my best travel clothes. I had been to the islands many times but this, this was Europe! I was visiting a different continent. After what seemed like an eternity of anticipation the day of departure arrived. The flight across “The Pond” a.k.a. the Atlantic Ocean went like clockwork. The service aboard was top notch and the experience was exhilarating. I had a marvelous 10 days experiencing the U.K. and all too soon, it was time to fly back home. At least that’s what was supposed to happen. Apparently, those free tickets came with an asterisk. If there were more paying customers than available seats, any available seats went to the paying customers. As a business owner, I understand the logic behind that but it didn’t make it any easier standing in the terminal and watching the gate close with me and my travel companion on the wrong side of the airplane door. There were fewer flights between the States and London back then with fewer choices of airlines. Since we were travelling as reduced rate passengers we only had a choice of one airline and that airline had no seats for us. Assured that we would soon be on our way home, we opted to stay at the airport. The city was an hour away and we were reluctant to reverse directions, dragging luggage in search of a place to stay. We had also reached the end of an already stretched budget. What started as a simple cost saving measure soon deteriorated to an exercise in tolerance and patience. If you’ve seen the Tom Hanks movie called “The Terminal” you’ll have an excellent reference in understanding our predicament. The premise is based upon an international traveler whose country experiences a coup while he’s at the airport, homeward bound. In a single day his country ceased to exist and he was denied departure from the United States because his travel papers were no longer valid. The airport literally becomes his new home and we watch as he struggles to keep himself fed, clean and occupied without any money, relatives or friends. I can relate to his experience. As a matter of fact if the screenwriter wasn’t able to prove me wrong, I would claim that the script was based upon our experience. In reality though I’m sure it could be based upon hundreds, if not thousands of individual experiences. Perhaps it was semi-autobiographical to the screenwriter about a personal airline overbooking mishap. Similar to the main character in the movie, I too struggled to stay clean. I had no choice but to try and wash up in the public restrooms. It was challenging because my luggage had already been checked and because we were heading home I had packed all the toiletries. We struggled to find a way to rest. Taking turns, one of us kept an eye on the carryon luggage while the other tried to sleep using luggage as a pillow. Airport chairs are uncomfortable but airport floors are hard. The next day came and we were advised that we had moved to the top of the waitlist. Our odds seemed pretty good and I was optimistic. However, when the gate closed and the airplane doors were shut, with us on the wrong side it confirmed that we were spending another night. Another round of phone calls were made to the office, the pet sitter and the person picking us up at the airport. Since we had already spent the night it still didn’t make sense to trek back to the city and spend the money. Hey! Who needs showers! Honestly? We both did at that point and if we waited any longer the airline probably would have denied us boarding out of consideration for the other passengers. Finally, on the third day with the golden tickets in our hands we approached the boarding gate. That’s a nice way of saying that we sort of shimmied in front of the other passengers to be the first to board. Assuming, logically, that it would be harder to eject passengers once they were already on the plane with their seat belts fastened and seat backs in an upright position. Our table trays were even locked in place. We held our collective breath and waited for the plane to push back from the gate.  Fortunately, no one was making a mad dash to board our flight. Once we were taxiing down the runway I was able to exhale. I knew we were finally homeward bound and I wondered if our luggage would be waiting for us, It was, no doubt, wondering where we had been for the last 2 days.