Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A new King and Queen!

The biggest birthday party in the world is underway in the Netherlands right now. With Queen’s Night (April 29th) leading up to Queen's day, Queensday or Koninginnedag, it is a national holiday that celebrates the birthday of the Queen of the Netherlands. Actually, a former Queen’s birthday, as Queen Beatrix’s birthday is really on January 31st and the date chosen is rather Her Majesties mother’s Juliana’s birthday so as to celebrate during the spring. This rather confusing birthday tradition will end this year because next year it will be King’s Day that will be celebrated, and the date will be the 27th of April. Maybe you ask yourself why?

The orange revelers take to the canals
The change is occurring because this Queen’s Day in 2013 marks the official abdication of Queen Beatrix and investiture of the new king and queen of the Netherlands.  The new King Willem-Alexander’s birthday is on April 27th, hence the new King’s Day starting in 2014. (And actually, 2014 will immediately be an exception because April 27th falls on a Sunday so it will be held the day before, April 26th, but after that King's Day will be on April 27th.)

King Willem Alexander and Queen Beatrix, source here
We were lucky enough to attend the giant birthday party in Amsterdam last year, and even with the children along it was absolutely a blast. The memories from those few days in the Netherlands are at the top of our expat travel experience, as in the same week we managed to fit in the famous tulip fields in the Haarlem area, Madurodam, the windmills and the dikes. A trip of a lifetime, considering Mikus was only 3 months old and Lauris was set to turn two in a few weeks.

Back to Queen’s Day! In honor of the Queen and the royal family (House of Orange) the city turns orange for a day. From clothes to food to decorations, the streets and canals become a wave of orange. The party has to be experienced to be believed!

The official events taking place this year include the official abdication at the Royal Palace on Dam Square, followed by the inauguration of His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange and Her Royal Highness Princess Máxima of the Netherlands as the new king and queen at De Nieuwe Kerk. Large screens are set up across the city so that locals and visitors can all take part in the official program, which will include the official addresses and a Royal boat parade as well as a private reception for the new Royals.

Congratulations to the new King and Queen! We’ll be wearing orange today in your honor!!!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

6 months in North Main

As the 6 month anniversary of moving into our new house approaches, I’ve been thinking about how it finally feels like home. We’ve settled in well: making friends with our neighbors, becoming active in the community, and adding to the yard to make it more suitable for the kids. Nothing in the interior of the house has been changed other than some electrical work we had done soon after moving in, but the boxes have (mostly) been unpacked, our belongings have found homes and the superfluous done away with. We’ve picked up some furniture to fill some holes, reassigned other pieces to serve different purposes and identified what we still need.

We celebrated Ūsiņdiena with ice cream downtown, one of the many things we love about our 'hood
It’s true that we have fallen in love with the neighborhood. North Main is close to downtown, not quite walkable with the boys, but definitely doable without driving if we walk to the trolley. The giant, mature oaks lining the streets provide shade, color and character. The street is inhabited by an eclectic mix of families, young couples starting out and neighbors who have been here since they were children. We can walk to two parks, one of which is part of the school the boys will be attending in a few short years. Friday I walked to the school with Lauris and Mikus to check out Arts Alive, the annual fundraiser featuring music, food, games, rides and a silent auction to benefit Stone Academy. It was nice to recognize a few of the families that live on our street, and even nicer to know that by having fun all afternoon we were helping to support a top-rated local school. Mikus loved the “Dinosaur Dig” activity, a sandbox filled with buried treasure that both boys dug around in for quite some time (for them the digging was more fun than finding the prizes). Lauris especially remembers getting a train painted on his arm and his hair colored pink. He wanted to participate in the paintball-style glitter fight, but I thought that was best saved for when he is a little older. We left balloons in hand about three hours later after a meal of snow cones, hot dogs, pizza and popcorn. I’m very glad we went to check out what was going on; I had seen a few ads for Arts Alive, but thought it was an art program for the Stone students. When we saw the news helicopters circling that afternoon I figured out it was something more – over 2,000 people were expected.

In the last picture, notice the pink hair...
We’ve also recently joined the neighborhood community group, and Thursday evening attended a membership drive at the local soda shop to meet more neighbors. It was only recently that we learned such an organization exists; due to several developments being built nearby there have been concerns over subdividing, retention ponds and the loss of mature trees, and we attended an informational meeting to learn more. The social meet and greet Thursday reminded us that there is an organization looking out for the general health of our community, and we had fun meeting new people and checking out the fire engine from the local firehouse.

In our six months here we’ve managed to make some big changes to the backyard. During the winter we built two raised beds in the sunniest portion of the yard, which were immediately appropriated by the two little guys as their own personal digging site. With some pressure treated lumber, rebar and a saw we were able to quickly put together a very solid, easy to assemble (and disassemble if needed) raised garden that hopefully will be productive for us this summer.

The spring however has so far been a constant struggle to keep Mikus from pulling everything up from the garden, and we had talked for a while of building a sandbox to keep them otherwise occupied. While Zinta was in town our neighbor stopped by to let us know she had seen a sandbox on the curb a few streets over as she knew we had been thinking about building one and hadn’t yet found the time. I left the boys with my sister and went to take a look, finding an adorable wooden sandbox in great shape. Good (free) finds don’t last long in this neighborhood, and after measuring and deliberating and trying to figure out a way to fit the playset in the car without taking it apart I was resigned to waiting for my husband to get home with the truck. At that moment yet another stroke of luck occurred, as a neighbor saw me and offered to give the sandbox a ride to our place with his pickup. Roberts has fitted the box with a cover and yesterday we filled it with river sand, a cheaper alternative to the play sand that sells at home improvement stores.

The sandbox is not the only “lightly used” play equipment taking up space in the backyard. A while back we went out to Anderson to a farm that belongs to some friends of ours, and they offered us they playset that their girls had outgrown and was taking up space where the pool was to go. After determining that it could be taken apart we accepted the offer, knowing that putting it back together might prove more of a challenge than getting it home. Sure enough, between having to replace a couple of boards and the awning, to having to “tweak” things a little, the result is not exactly how it originally looked. The important thing however is that the two boys now have a swingset and slide to expend energy on, and that Mikus has become a little spider monkey climbing up and down the rock wall.

With all the settling in and changes in the last six months I’m curious to see what the next six will bring. I’m excited to see what happens with the garden, so far it looks like the squirrels and insects will provide me a challenge with some of the plants. And we keep adding more; a raspberry bush has joined the blueberries and the grape has finally budded, some hostas will be joining the shrubbery out front and the mint that a friend dug up from her garden has finally established itself in the back close to the irises our neighbor separated for us from her gorgeous garden. She’s the one that had to give her three guinea hens to her brother; we are simultaneously sad and happy to see them go as we (especially the boys) loved collecting the beautiful feathers that occasionally landed on our side of the fence, and that they would keep us company while we played and worked outside, but the early morning wake-up calls will not be missed. Never a dull moment, it looks like we’ll possibly have some chickens for neighbors on the other side in the coming months, should I complain a little in order to secure a bribe of fresh eggs?  Changes on the block aren’t restricted to new development either. Friends on another street (with a French connection) have decided on a move to California, and we are sorry to see them go, but new friends we refer to as the #2 pencils (we first met them as a family on Halloween, when they were dressed up as…) remind us that there are tons of families with kids of similar ages as L & M on our street.

I wish to end this overly long post with the following thought - everything happens for a reason. Upon moving back from France a lot earlier than originally expected we regretted selling our house; the first home we ever owned, the house Lauris spent the first months of his life in, the friendships we formed in another tight-knit community. But now I realize that if we still owned that house, we would never have bought this home, in a neighborhood that has already brought us so much happiness. Now wouldn’t it be cool if the rumors of an owl living in our tree were true (well, except for maybe the new chickens...)?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Henry's Smokehouse and the conversion to BBQ

Having my little sister Zinta in town was marvelous! The last two days she was here I got more done since before both boys were born. Monday was spent running errands, but of course we showed Zinta some of our favorite haunts: the State Farmers Market, Tomato Vine, Swamp Rabbit Café & Grocery… Lauris went in for his summer haircut (it was a mutual decision to leave it to the professionals instead of attempting to do it ourselves after his last “haircut by mom”), we hit the post office and grocery store, and ended up at Henry’s Smokehouse for lunch.

If there is one thing “Southern” that I have grown to appreciate and love, it is barbecue. Before moving down south the word “barbecue” to me meant anything cooked on the grill or the actual event of firing up the grill and cooking on it. If you had said “pulled pork” to me I would have imagined a stretched out pig. In the years I’ve lived in Georgia and South Carolina I’ve received quite an education, and now one of the Southern traditions we introduce our visitors to is BBQ, barbeque, barbecue or bar-b-que.

Henry's Smokehouse

Our favorite place in Greenville, Henry’s Smokehouse, has three locations: one in Simpsonville, one on Woodruff and the original on Wade Hampton Road, just a few minutes from downtown Greenville. The barbecue there is done the old fashioned Southern way, by cooking the meat in open BBQ pits at low temperatures. Often driving by we can smell the mouth-watering combination of the barbecue and hickory smoke from the wood they use, as all the cooking is done on location and takes time; pork butts cook for 12 hours and ribs for over 8. It’s called pulled pork because the meat is hand-pulled off the bone.

Henry's is a great place to eat on a hot summer night!

We ordered two regular BBQ sandwich plates, they come with a pickle, bread and two sides. My favorites are the mac and cheese and the sweet potato casserole, but lately I order the fries (very yummy) for the boys, who do a good job of cleaning off their plates. I’ve had the ribs also, if you’re very hungry get a full rack of ribs and you’ll thank me forever. Supposedly the hash is good too, although I've yet to give it a try. That Monday afternoon we grabbed the last open table inside, because even though there are picnic tables outside, on a slightly windy day with two kids you tend to lose plates and napkins very quickly. I watched my sister try out the different sauces, a tomato-based mild BBQ sauce, and a mustard-based spicy sauce (both delicious), and wondered how a two year old can put away so much mac and cheese.

Henry's Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

Stomachs full we headed home for a long afternoon spent in the backyard. We’re having some issues with our garden; all the seeds I’ve planted are sprouting and there is a certain one year old (I won’t name any names…) who is intent on pulling every last one up. Our stops at the Farmer’s Market and Tomato Vine yielded a number of plants that needed to be planted in the beds, and Zinta was an invaluable resource in keeping the boys from “helping” too adamantly.

Tuesday was more of the same, we fit in a visit to the zoo before lunch at the Runway Café for some fried oreos. Don't worry grandma, we did have lunch, not just the oreos! And a side note; Zinta has officially been converted y'all, because for lunch she ordered bar-b-que.

And then, six very short days after arriving, she was gone. And things haven't been the same.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Zinta and the Blue Ridge Escarpment

Headed north on US 276 towards Caesars Head State Park you will pass a small turn-out about 5 miles before reaching the Park headquarters. There are no signs, but with views as spectacular as those from the Park, it is well worth your time to pay Bald Rock Heritage Preserve a visit. Part of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area that includes Caesars Head and Jones Gap State Parks, Bald Rock is a granite outcrop at least a couple acres in size.

After parking in the pull-off on the east side of the road (using the intersection of 276 & Club Terrace Drive in Cleveland will get you very close to the turn off if you are using mapping software or apps, the turnout is 1/10th of a mile south) cross the wooden footbridge to the rock outcrop. From this vantage point you will be able to look out over Pickens and Greenville county, as well as have a great view of Table Rock and the surrounding mountains. A pine forest surrounds the graffiti-covered exposed rock, but lichens, mosses and pockets of hardy grasses can be found here and there on the rock as well.

We took my sister Zinta to Bald Rock during her visit to the Upstate, on our excursion to Caesars Head. It was cold up on the unprotected mountain, surprising us after warm weather down in Greenville. We bundled up for the short walk out to the Caesar’s Head overlook, switching out shorts for pants on the boys, and digging fleeces and sweatshirts out of the trunk. The sunshine was warm; it was the wind that had us pulling our collars up and warming our hands in our pockets.

The view from the overlook was grand, worth the chill, and after taking in the scene we descended the stairs and squeezed through a long crevice in the rock to follow a spur trail for a glimpse of Caesars Head from below. A granite gneiss outcrop at the top of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the rock is what gives the park its name, although it is more famous for the views of North Carolina and Georgia from the top than for the shape. Even at the end of the spur trail that provides the view of Caesar's head you will find yourself high above the circling hawks, and we often bring a picnic to enjoy at one of the picnic tables with a view of seemingly all of the Upstate.

A number of trails radiate out from the Visitor Center, including the 5.3 mile-long Jones Gap Trail that we hiked a portion of (from the opposite end) on our Jones Gap Falls hike. The Park is also part of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, and it is from a second parking area a mile up the road that the 2.2 mile Raven Cliff Falls Trail departs, ending at an overlook platform to the 420-foot waterfall. However on this particular day we were headed back down to Highway 11, to see Wildcat Branch Falls.

The lower falls are visible from the road and the pull-off is hard to miss, especially on the days the boiled peanuts vendor has set up shop. To the left of the falls are steps that will take you to a trail that winds on to the upper falls. Zinta, Lauris and I quickly hiked up while the other two boys stayed behind to nap, and were rewarded with a glimpse of the 100ft falls. Then it was quickly back down to the car; there is no trail to the top of the Wildcat Branch Falls, and attempting to reach the top has resulted in numerous fatalities and injuries over the years, the last of which was just this past September.

We complete this multi-stop tour often with visitors to the Upstate; it provides dramatic scenery, waterfalls and short hikes that are easy to reach from Greenville, appropriate for all ages and provide a good impression of the mountainous portion of the Upstate. The last part of the tour usually includes a stop at Table Rock State Park, as it is nearby on Highway 11 and provides yet another perspective of the famous Table Rock. From Caesar’s Head the view is of the northeast face and the Table Rock Reservoir. The view from Bald Rock is from the east, and from the Visitor Center at Table Rock SP we see the south face of the table and "Footstool mountain". The 3,000 acre park provides trail access to the 80-mile Foothills Trail which connects to Oconee SP, and trails up Pinnacle and Table Rock mountains. Within the park are many CCC-built structures, a portion of which are on the National Register of Historic Places (see this post on Paris Mountain State Park for a quick review on the CCC in SC). We chose not to hike, instead we enjoyed a breather lakeside before making the 40 minute ride back to Greenville.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A spring cleansing

We had a blast showing my little sister all our favorite spots downtown last week, including the Mice on Main and all the various statues and fountains. We had checked out Falls Park and a tiny piece of the Swamp Rabbit Trail on Friday, so Saturday afternoon/evening we stuck to Main Street north of the Reedy River. It’s always fun seeing our town through a visitor’s eyes, but it can be even better to taste Greenville through the excuse of guests… Enter cheese fries, wings and burger, excellent fare for a spring evening after a long day of work.

How hard could our Saturday have been you ask, especially with ace-childcare specialist little sister in town? The morning started at six, as we struggled to unpack dozens of boxes of stuff onto our driveway for a good old-fashioned yard sale. Our two previous moves had been a little bit sudden, and as they both came on the heels of having a baby I might have been a little lax in sorting the essentials from the clutter. Along with spring came the urge to purge, and the past weeks had been spent going through boxes, cupboards, the shed and the closets, sorting our life into piles of “need,” “keep,” and “sell.” I convinced our neighbors on both sides to join in the fun, and after an ad in the local paper (much too expensive, will not be doing that again when our online ads pulled in a couple of hundred people) and some handmade signs out on Main Street we had a pretty decent yard sale, if I can say so myself.

The boys immediately appropriated items from the sale for themselves
With an hour to go until the official start of the sale the cars came pulling in, people demanding to see what had yet to be unpacked. It was the first weekend of sunny, warm weather, and I was a little sad not to be out hunting bargains myself, but the feeling of satisfaction over de-cluttering, and making room for some new furniture won out.

Z and Max Heller
My five lessons learned on having a yard sale:

1. Begin at 7am, because despite listing your start time as 8, people will be there at 7.
2. Every sale needs big ticket items to balance out the knick-knacks. We just happened to sell our biggest item a few days earlier on craigslist, but had enough medium sized stuff to draw people in. All of our CDs sold, books didn’t sell well at all.
3. Get your neighbors to join in, one-stop shopping is appealing to people, and it also adds variety.
4. Display things visibly, easy to peruse. We put our big, bulky electronics up on pallets, used a ton of cardboard boxes as tables, propped a curtain rod up on a ladder to hang clothes on, and sold the majority.
5. Price to sell. Of course you’ll have some bigger things that you want to get a certain amount for, but remember that you’ve taken the trouble to get it out of the house, and you want to keep it there.

PS. On our way home from downtown, we stumbled upon another type of sale. This enterprising artist was selling his work. When offered a choice between a piece of art for $1 or for 3 cents, we chose the more expensive of the two and walked away with a portrait of a sea monster. More importantly, we made a mother’s day. Apparently selling art is more difficult than selling lemonade… I think the sea monster will go next to the portrait of Lauris we commissioned in Amsterdam on Queen's Day.
PSS. Anyone want to buy a great wooden desk? It's solid (code for weighs a ton), is an antique (read: old) and could be a great drafting or work table (aka very large!). Still has the typewriter slide!!! Yours for a bargain :)


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Little sister to the rescue!

It was my sister’s first visit to Greenville as well as her first time in South Carolina. Along with her arrival in the hallway at the GSP airport came spring – she proved to be a breath of fresh air in a tired routine of diapers and dishes, inspiration to share our favorite spots in the Upstate, motivation to get out of the house and exploring. We packed our days together completely full, and although it all wasn’t play, it was all enjoyable.

I took advantage of Zinta’s visit to take care of my 6 month dentist appointment, and after the morning spent saying “aaaagh” we headed downtown to say “yum.” I hadn’t had an opportunity nor an excuse to try the new lunch place on Camperdown, Rick’s Deli and Market. The same group that owns the West End Grille and Nantucket Seafood opened this deli/market putting the Michelin-starred Chef Emmanuel at the helm. With fresh food, premium wines and beers, and a great location this business is primed for success, and we had a great experience. Upon stepping in I was instantly transported back to France as we were ushered around a rather long line of people to a register, just because we had the two boys with us. In turn, they behaved themselves perfectly, eating their lunch like perfect little gentlemen. The sandwiches were fresh and packed with meat and flavor, the fries crisp, and the atmosphere suitable for families as well as businessmen. This is a restaurant I will bring future visitors to, as the only hiccup came when my sister’s Rueben arrived with sauerkraut. This put a smile on my face, because I imagined the chef asking “who orders a Rueben without sauerkraut?” before deciding his creation would not taste right sans… just like frequently happened in France.

We loaded the boys up and headed down the street to Falls Park, hitting all the high spots; the falls, Liberty Bridge, the giant beech with its exposed roots. The park really was dressed to impress, everywhere we looked flowers were throwing forth color and cheer, and the bright yellow and green buds on the trees were fresh, the colors untouched by the heat of summer.

Continuing along the Swamp Rabbit Trail we crossed under Main Street, to reach the train water park. With a waterfall backdrop and a train seemingly emerging from a tunnel off to one side, the specially designed water play area has shooting water jets for the children to play in during summer. The sun was warm enough for the boys to shed their shoes and splash around some, but soon enough the Reedy River captured their interest and necessitated that we move on.

A little farther along the trail is the Children’s Garden, which is a multi-sensory outdoor experience for children teaching everything from biology, ecology, geology and pathology to colors, the senses and gardening with some art and music thrown in. Before our move to France the garden was a magical place; every inch of the park was lovingly maintained, the plants flourishing under a very green thumb. Since we’ve returned I have noticed it seems a bit run down, but on our visit the musical instruments had been repaired and it appeared the garden will soon be planted, so it is my hope that Lauris and Mikus will witness the magic return. For the geocachers among you, make sure to cross off the “Greenville Rocks!” geocache while enjoying this beautiful spot.

Worn out from the sun we headed home to a nice dinner and relaxed evening preparing for a very big weekend. More on that later, but I’m signing off with this confession; one day with my littlest sister and I was a new woman. Free to cook dinner without a one-year old pulling on my pants leg, free to take a few photographs without worrying I’ve taken my eyes off the boys, free to laugh and smile with someone who knows me well. It takes a perfect day like this one to remember just how lucky I am to have the family I do.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Big changes in Greenville!

Spring has brought big change to Greenville. Along with warm weather the construction crews have set up all across town. We have a work site just down the street since we’ve moved in (10 homes going up in the space previously occupied by one) that we regularly visit to observe the construction equipment and progress, and just down the block the other way a house was completely gutted and rebuilt, the property subdivided with another home (almost dwarfing the first but on a lot half as big) going up behind it. But along with the spring weather it seems that everywhere we go work crews are fixing roads, replacing pipes or building structures; even Main street is torn up between the North Main area and downtown, presumably to replace the second lane and parking spaces with planted medians. The Greenville airport is undergoing expansion (and we know this because we have just been there to pick up a guest!!!), and demolition was just completed on the old Piedmont Shirt Factory on Poinsett Highway. It's an exciting time to be a construction equipment-loving two year old in Greenville!

The big construction downtown is nearing to a close as the Project One building shows visible progress. The Bergamo plaza was a hive of activity last week and the boys watched the little excavators with delight on a walk through downtown. One of the businesses in the new building has opened; Greenville is the proud new home of an Anthropologie. We looped through to take a look, and I’ll say more than one thing caught my eye although the price tags kept me from bringing anything home. This wasn’t the case for a parade of customers exiting bags in hand during the time we spent near the doors watching the construction crew at work on the plaza.

If Anthropologie doesn’t have you excited, maybe the other big name coming soon to a Greenville near you does? Cabela’s will be coming next spring, on Woodruff in Magnolia Park. According to the Greenville News, the new store will include a gun “library,” an indoor archery range, a deli, a fudge shop with 40 different flavors and a replica of a mountain with models of North American game animals. I’m interested to see how that will influence the already congested traffic situation in the area, but also if it brings tourists to town like it has in some other places. As soon as Sports Authority has closed, demolition of the last Greenville mall buildings will begin, and if all goes according to plan there will soon be a Toys R Us, a Babies R Us (moving from Haywood Rd.) and the Cabela’s joining Costco and Rooms To Go.

Who needs 40 flavors of fudge when we have the Marble Slab Creamery???
It isn’t just retail stores opening in Greenville, there are a slew of new restaurants in town. A few of them center around fresh and local ingredients, such as Roost, which I’ve had two opportunities to try. Then there is Rare Steakhouse on the Piazza, across the plaza from the Project One building on Main St. I’m torn between wanting to give it a try right away and waiting until the construction is finished resulting in a nicer view. Of course quite a few restaurants have closed; it looks like a relatively new restaurant on Main St. – Yap! – has shuttered*, also a Greek place that we only just discovered, Yia Yia’s at Night. But if you hadn’t heard the news, the Greenville landmark Clock Drive-In has renegotiated its lease and is remaining open.
Breakfast at Femme au Foyer's

Speaking of restaurants and food, Greenville is joining the ranks of cities with food trucks. As with all new things there are spots that need ironing out, and so according to some foodies a food truck war is being waged, but I’m excited to see what the coming months will bring. An Upstate food blogger has written that the owner of the Trappe Door (one of my favorite restaurants in Greenville) possibly  has a food truck in the works, and that a Cajun and a crepe truck will be joining Chocolate Moose, Pies R Squared, Neue Southern and Asada.
Cherry blossom flower petals, short-sleeved shirts, sandals... it's spring!
But all thoughts of food aside, the city is a completely different one than we’ve been seeing the past couple of months. With cherries, dogwoods and redbuds in bloom, tulips and phlox replacing the tired pansies, long-dormant grass greening up and sunny blue skies overhead, it is hard to avoid feeling as if the city is a waking sleeping beauty. Temperatures have already climbed into the nineties, the kudzu is already budding out, and although I fear this summer will be a scorcher, I can’t help but rejoice at the beauty of spring in the South.

This newfound joy in what Greenville has to offer might be because spring (and summer, I blinked) has arrived, or it might be because of another big change – my sister Z is visiting. I wish it were for longer than just six days (as do Lauris and Mikus who spend every waking minute asking her to read, play or feed them), but we are sure making the most of the days we have with her. Sightseeing, spring cleaning, hiking, lunching, we are keeping busy and I can’t wait to share it all! Bučas, tante Zinta, we are so happy you’re here!!!

* 5/10/2013 Note: YAP! is remaining open after all, there was a period of a couple weeks that the restaurant was shuttered but it was for renovations, not because it's closing. With a new chef and new menu we might be headed downtown to try it out sometime soon...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery

The Tomato Vine isn’t the only place in town to get fresh, local produce in Greenville. Conveniently located less than two miles from downtown Greenville and on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, the Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery is filled with fresh-baked goods and locally-grown food. Located in a nondescript-looking former abandoned warehouse, it can be easy to miss the small roadside sign, but coming from the east you can easily see the large white letters spelling out “CAFE & GROCERY.” Parking is apparently shared with Swamp Rabbit Trail users, but the bicyclists and runners passing on the trail are frequent customers judging by the amount of bike helmets, lycra and bicycles parked outside.

Along the back wall are the fridges containing all the local dairy and meat, but front center are Greenville and Swamp Rabbit Trail-themed products
According to their website, half of the inventory is from sources within 150 miles, all baked goods are made from scratch and they recycle and compost. On our recent visit we saw what looked like fruit tree seedlings planted opposite the store, and a freshly tilled field awaiting a garden; it could be some ingredients will be from less than 150 feet away.

Not too long ago we decorated Easter eggs in the outdoor seating area before taking a stroll on the trail, but recently we returned to meet our friends for a coffee and a walk. The café was doing brisk business, and we took our lattes outside to one of the picnic tables, distracting the four boys with yummy chocolate chip cookies while we tried to piece together a conversation. Afterwards, a walk in what seemed like sunny 90˚+ weather to run off some of the chocolate-generated energy. I’m tempted to pop Mikus into the backpack and Lauris into the jogging stroller in the near future to see how long it takes me to hike to Falls Park from the grocery - the Swamp Rabbit Trail is a hiking/biking trail I’ve not yet really explored during our time in Greenville.

The refrigerated room with yummy local produce
Upon our return the Happy Cow Creamery truck was making a delivery, and we chose one of their smoked baby Swiss cheeses and a tomato & basil cheese from NC-based Ashe County Cheese to go with the pork salami and freshly baked baguette.  For a minute I was transported back to France, but was jerked back to reality when I didn’t have to weigh the locally grown tomatoes before going to checkout.

A folding table set up outside provided the perfect setting for our French dinner!
As the offerings at the Swamp Rabbit Grocery are changing with what is seasonally available, we’ll be headed back often to see what’s new, in addition to picking up fresh bread and having a cup of coffee with friends. It’s encouraging to see a grocery that supports local business and high-quality, sustainable ingredients thriving in our community; we will be providing them more of our business in the future.

Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

5 Things on hiking with children, or Jones Gap

Hiking with children can be intense.
The need to get out, get some exercise and enjoy the spring weather overrode the need to get things done around the house (mainly spring cleaning) and so we loaded up the car and kids and headed north to Jones Gap State Park

A mere 40 minute drive from Greenville you can enter a forested mountain cove and spend the day hiking, trout fishing or cooling off in one of the many cold streams. Book a campsite in advance and you can stay overnight, exploring the 11,000 acre wilderness at your leisure. The only catch is, spring and summer bring a ton of visitors, and as parking is limited you might encounter a queue to get in, as we did. 

Jones Gap State Park is linked with Caesars Head State Park by a number of trails forming the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, and also is an access point to the 76-mile Foothills Trail. Our destination was much less ambitious; the 50-foot Jones Gap Falls connecting a small tributary with the Middle Saluda River, only one mile in on the 5.3 mile (one way) Jones Gap State Park Trail. 

Detailed hiking maps can be purchased at the Park Headquarters, but Jones Gap Falls are easily reached without a map. The trailhead is just past Park Headquarters, on the right after crossing the bridge. Blue blazes can be followed the one mile to a short spur trail that will take you to the falls, although about halfway there you will pass the trailhead to Rainbow Falls, a strenuous hike that totals about 5 miles roundtrip including the portion of Jones Gap Trail. 

It will be several years before we take the kids on a hike any more challenging than the JGP. Lauris was a trooper, totaling 3 miles on foot before the day was out, but Mikus was in the backpack carrier, and not content to enjoy the ride. During his breaks from being a passenger he was intent on exploring the forest, mainly attempting to swim in the Saluda or measure the steepness of the mountainous terrain through rolling. Needless to say, he spent the majority of trail-time in the backpack, and he voiced his displeasure loudly and repeatedly until falling asleep an hour in.

And hiking with an almost-three-year-old? A slow affair. Short legs, you know. Frequent stops to pick up sticks and rocks, a tumble or two over roots, the “I don’t want to go any further” discussion 20 minutes in and of course the “why are there trees here? why do they grow in the forest? why are you walking so quickly? why are we hiking today?”
But we made it, to the waterfall and back. Lauris of his own steam, Mikus spending an equal amount of time on each parent’s back. If you happen to find yourself in a similar situation, please remember these five things:

1. Bring plenty of goldfish/Cheerios/fruit snacks. They can be easily handed to sate a passenger riding in a backpack, as well as laid out Hansel & Gretel style to get a reluctant toddler to follow.

2. Take the estimated time required to hike the trail and triple it to account for short legs and frequent stops to explain the meaning of life to the almost-three-year-old.

3. Dream about the beautiful campsite located extremely close to the parking area, but do not book it. Because once you haul your gear and two kids to said campsite you will spend precisely 100% of your remaining daylight keeping the kids out of the creek, and the night hours trapped in a tent with two boys who will no doubt decide to stay awake to watch the sun rise. How do I know this, not having done this myself? Exactly.

4. Bring plenty of water. Because most of it will be used by the almost-three-year-old to demonstrate a waterfall to the one-year-old. 

5. The mental snapshot of your son “fishing” with a stick at the foot of the falls, legs dangling over the water and megawatt smile on his face, will remain with you forever, and even prompt you to suggest a return excursion on the car ride home.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Tomato Vine

We are very lucky to live close to the Greenville state farmers market, and also the downtown Saturday farmers market. We often treat the downtown market as an excursion on Saturdays, taking the time to grab a bite to eat and stroll up Main Street in addition to picking up something from one of the many vendors that have set up shop. It only starts up in the spring, and lasts just long enough to buy a pumpkin for Halloween, but can be a little more expensive than the supermarket and inconvenient when we travel on the weekends. This is why the state farmers market is a favorite place of ours, with fresh, local produce year round and open on Mondays through Saturdays, 8am to 6pm. (And the Piedmont Spring Plant and Flower Festival is coming up May 2-5th, mark your calendars!)
However my recent favorite store for fruits, vegetables and local produce is Tomato Vine, on Old Buncombe Road. With prices up to half what they are in the local supermarkets, fresher produce and a great selection, I tend to stock up once a week.

Not everything is local. There is an assortment of products I haven’t seen elsewhere, such as plantain and banana leaves that I assume aren’t from the region. During off-season the fruits have also traveled longer distances, for example your strawberries are from Florida, not the local farm that will supply them in a month’s time.

Nevertheless there are entire shelves devoted to local jams, preserves, honey, syrup and bread. Nuts and dried fruit are available in bulk, as well as peanut brittle and other sweets. There's a good selection of chiles, and like I said, the prices can’t be beat.

Located at 4120 Old Buncombe Road in Greenville for at least twenty years now, they are open year round. Parking is easy and grocery carts are available, just remember, they don’t accept credit or debit.

Note for my Greenville readers:

For those of you interested in native plants for your garden or home, tomorrow (Saturday April 6th) is the South Carolina Native Plant Society’s Upstate Spring Native Plant Sale. Open from 9am to 1pm, you can find the sale in the parking lot of University Center at the corner of South Pleasantburg and Antrim Drive in Greenville. A great chance to pick up beautiful native plants, grasses, shrubs and trees that provide habitat, nectar and food for our native wildlife!

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