Monday, September 19, 2011


A view in the southern Czech Republic town of Znojmo

 By - Diane Lachtrupp Martinez
Special to the Times Union  

     Explaining that you have gluten and dairy allergies to a waiter is challenging enough but asking for gluten-and dairy-free meals in Czech takes it to another level.  Preparing for a recent trip to Czech Republic with my mom, who speaks a little Czech, and by brother, who speaks none, I knew I’d need a better knowledge of the language than my one Czech song, if I was to avoid the socially averse physical reactions of food allergies and, possibly, a trip to the ER.  I thought preparation, good manners and charm were needed to ensure that I could get food that I could eat.

Gluten-free meal on Delta Airlines.

      First the airlines.  We asked our travel agent to request a gluten-and dairy-free meal.  That being done I decided to start working on my Czech pleasantries so that I could garner waiter cooperation.   Food is important to me and I wasn’t interested in an endless parade of grilled chicken on a mixed green salad.  I wanted the real deal -local Czech food.  I consulted my Czech dictionary and found out that please is “prosím” and that thank you is “dĕkuji  vám.”   Further research revealed the phrase “I am allergic to…” “Jsem allergicka na…” and I looked up the word for wheat “pšenici” and milk “mléko” to finish my phrase. 
      Before going, I searched for useful web sites and I found these useful for information: (for restaurant suggestions), (for purchasing gluten –free products) and for articles about traveling gluten-free in different countries including the Czech Republic.  Most of the web sites were geared to Prague and had little regarding some of the smaller cities that we would be traveling to.

      As a final preparation, I took along some gluten-free bread and crackers and some rice cheese.  While getting settled in your new digs, you may not have time to search for the closest health food store or market.  I always travel with my bread and cheese, so I can enjoy a sandwich anywhere and toast with my eggs.  My go-to snacks are hummus, nuts and dried fruit.  While other travelers may be able to grab a quick yogurt, health bar or cheese as a small meal, I am limited.
      Once on our way, we found Delta had honored my request as a gluten-and dairy-free passenger and delivered to me a respectable dinner of flavorful chicken, rice, vegetables, salad and a fruit salad.  Before landing in the morning, they provided me with a rice cake, fruit and meat and cheese.  Truth be told, my food looked better and fresher than my fellow passengers who were dining on the regular fare.
      But, I had yet to be put to the true test.  After checking into our hotel by the Charles Bridge, we ventured out for lunch.  We happened upon a Czech/Austrian restaurant in an open square.  I tried out my phrase  ” Jsem allergicka na pšenici ” on the waiter and he tilted his head to the side in confusion.  I repeated it several times and eventually he understood, broke into his excellent English and corrected my phrase to include the word for gluten “lepek” as opposed to wheat.  Our waiter,  Hanza, was generous and tweaked and rehearsed my phrase.  My pronunciation of the word for dairy had been so laughable Hanza suggested I stick with the word for milk to express myself.  After a tasty meal of boiled beef, grilled fish, potatoes and vegetables, I left the restaurant with a satisfied tummy, a new confidence and an invaluable piece of paper that now read “Jsem allergicka na lepek” and “Jsem allergicka na mléko.”
      The following day we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant in Staré Mĕsto (Old Town) where they were offering beverage, soup and bread for 75 Korunas about $4.50.  After a couple of tries with my new allergy statement, the waitress understood and said in Czech that the lentil soup contained no lepek or mléko.  Without prompting, she added a rice cake to the side of my bowl.  Although it was one of our simplest meals, I was touched by her thoughtfulness.  We communicated through my one sentence in Czech, her 10 words of English and my mom’s understanding of a few words.
      Our final morning in Prague, and after two days of eggs and toast, I decided to try and communicate a favorite meal of mine to the staff at our hotel.  The buffet breakfast was lovely with fruit, eggs (no milk) sausages, smoked meats, cheeses, yogurts, croissants and an assortment of breads.  It was heavy on dairy and gluten, so I was limited.  I brought my bread and rice cheese down to the dining room and tried to ask that it be grilled panini style.  After a couple of minutes of incomprehension,  the dining room staff sent me to the kitchen to talk to Tatiana, the cook, who spoke absolutely no English.  After five minutes of pointing to pans, butter and my bread and rice cheese, we were making a grilled cheese sandwich together.  Thrilled with my communication and my new breakfast, I headed back to the dining room, my mother and brother wondering what had happened to me.  
      About halfway through our trip my brother,  frustrated with witnessing my thrice daily long communications with the wait-staff, suggested I simply write it down.  Of course that’s a great idea for those who are shy to try the language, but I wasn’t.   I was there to take in the culture, eat the local food and try to speak their language.  I was meeting with great success with my sentence and, as a result of my allergies, was enjoying great experiences with the local Czechs.  He suggested his idea more than once and I ignored it more than once.
      While staying in the small town of Mikulov, near the Austrian border, we decided to go for lunch in the nearby chateau town of Lednice.  Soon after arriving, we received directions to a local restaurant; and local it was.  Our waiter spoke not a word of English, the menu was completely in Czech and my trusty allergy phrase seemed to mean little to him.  After a five minute futile discussion of the menu, the man at the table next to us could not take it a moment longer and broke into our conversation and offered his help.   We welcomed it and soon were eating a delicious gluten-and dairy-free meal of roast pork, potatoes and vegetables.  We sent a round of beer to the helpful man and his table companions and enjoyed our conversation with them which……. would not have occurred if I did not have food allergies.
      As to shopping for food, the large markets in Prague contained gluten-free products and dairy alternatives.  In the small city of Znjomo, I found a health food store that had a number of gluten-and dairy free-products, a helpful proprietress who spoke only Czech and a friendly customer who stepped in.  Gluten-and dairy-free issues are definitely on their radar.
Gluten-free bread from the health food store in Znojmo
Note the wheat symbol crossed out in the upper right corner.

     So- go forth and travel with your food allergies to the Czech Republic.  Remember  to contact the airline and hotel in advance and practice your Czech pleasantries.  If a molecule of gluten is an issue for you, stick to the restaurants listed on the web sites.  If your allergy is not as severe, then dine in mainstream restaurants, practice your phrase with enthusiasm and a smile and expect cooperative waiters and shopkeepers.  If  you must resort to English as your means of communication, ask politely if they speak English. Don’t assume.  Finally, take satisfaction in the fact that there are many wonderful Czech meals to be had without gluten and dairy.

Friday, September 2, 2011


      Along with hundreds of other Saratogians, we rent our home every summer for the racetrack season.  Our rental habit started as soon as we purchased our home July 16th 2004 and rented it the next day for the full track season.  Our family of four did not move to Saratoga from New York City until February of 2005, so we had a taste of the rental bug immediately.  We did full seasons in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 and then after a challenging 2009 summer, we decided just to rent our home for two to three weeks as opposed to the entire season for several reasons: 1) We became homesick.  Emotionally it was draining to be out of our home so long. Although, we usually travelled at least part of the rental period to some great places like Prince Edward Island, Costa Rica and Europe,  when we were in town staying at my mom’s we would always find ourselves driving by the house with longing, covetous looks.  2)  The preparation to ready a home for a six and a half week resident is overwhelming for a family with two active boys.  While a week long renter is happy with one dresser and partially emptied closet per bedroom and one kitchen cupboard for dry goods, the full season renter requires emptying all dressers, all closets and more kitchen cupboards.  3) Preparing ourselves to depart for six and a half weeks is staggering.  During that time, we have never done just one activity and remained stationary – No – we have to be prepared for a possible camping trip, a sailing trip a Central American trip or a trip to NYC to visit family.  Then of course, there is our everyday life of teaching dance and performing, so if we forget the correct Tango music or if I bring the wrong black fishnets, I’m out of luck.  We do have a casual understanding with all our renters, that if we get booked for a last minute show, we can re-enter for a few minutes and retrieve our Latin costumes or whatever.
      Renting for two weeks and a weekend went swimmingly in 2010 and my husband and I felt we had made the right decision. So it was with this false sense of confidence and ease, we approached the 2011 rental season.  By June, two one week contracts were confirmed and our first renters were due Sunday July 31st.  In July, our confidence dimmed as to our ability to have a calm preparation as my husband took on a full-time job teaching dance, Monday through Friday from 1pm to 9:45pm.  To add to this, our entire family was involved with a local production of Doctor Dolittle and had rehearsals from 9am to 1pm Tuesday through Friday.  My husband was the director, I was the choreographer and both boys (eight and fifteen) were in the production.   We were scheduled for camping two weekends in July, tech rehearsal was scheduled the weekend of July 24th and the last show was July 31st, the day that our renters were scheduled to arrive.  There was little time to prepare.
      The day after July 4th, and the first day of rehearsal we began our daily march of duties to our July 31st deadline.  After coming home from rehearsal and having lunch, I gave the boys goals to achieve in their room: sorting and recycling school papers, organizing toys, etc.  They grumbled but stuck to it and made small improvements.  Meanwhile, I would clean a drawer, prepare clothes for giveaway and sort through my own papers.  We were determined to have an organized exit, not just the one where everything is thrown in bags and tossed into a room on the third floor.  We were above that.  We were wrong.
      Although we had many summer activities, there was always the ominous cloud of preparing our home for the renters over our heads.  To ease the tension, I would orchestrate breaks from our chores in the form of card games, (Uno) ice pops or a movie.  My husband’s teaching job was nearby and he would come home between 5pm and 6pm for a break and/or dinner.  One sweltering hot day he came home to the sight of us poised with water pistols in the backyard, demanding that he change and join us.  A riotous half hour of running around, shooting each other and reloading from the rain barrel followed.  It was a great break from our fate.  It was our last great break.
      A few days later, Tuesday July 19th, (twelve days before the renters were due) our realtor calls us at 8:30am (en route to rehearsal) and asks if we would like to have weekend renters arrive this Friday.  “You mean in three days,” I gasp over the phone.   “Yes,” he replies.   My heart is already pumping, we discuss a price and I tell him I will let him know shortly.  We need to see if we can do it.  Before I turn to my husband, I already know our answer.  My husband and I look at each other knowingly and have a pointless conversation as we pretend to discuss the feasibility of readying ourselves by Friday.  He has to work from 9am to 9:45pm for the next four days; I have to work from 9am to 1pm for four days and am teaching several nights.  “Let’s do it,” we say in unison.  An audible groan washes over us from the back seat as the kids are clearly not on the same page as us.  My husband and I love a challenge, the financial rewards and why not?
      I receive the word that all is a go from my realtor during rehearsal and spend the next two hours choreographing the dance number “My Friend the Doctor.” In between steps I start a cleaning, sorting and organizing schedule in my head that will start the moment we arrive home.  By some miracle, I had already scheduled our monthly cleaning person to come on Thursday anyway so that is a huge help.  I contact her and she agrees to do most of the cleaning on Thursday and finishing touches on Friday.
       I start another list in my head of things that will not be happening this week: pedicure off the list, film forum on Thursday evening out the window and tennis on Friday goes by the wayside.   My husband’s previous fun dinner time breaks at home are a thing of the past.  No more backyard water pistol fights for us; my husband now comes homes on breaks to clean the grill and organize the laundry room.  Upon arriving home from work at 10pm, he installs air conditioners, cleans the office area and starts work on his closet which needs to be emptied.  No sacrifice is too great.
      Meanwhile, I am constantly cracking the whip with the kids persuading, coercing and demanding that they clean their rooms.  The command of cleaning your room is way too general and every hour I set up a new task for my eight year such as sort this pile of papers into school papers to keep and tests and homework that go to recycling.  He manages to recycle quite well although he is hourly distracted by a ball or something else that is throw able.  My fifteen year old son's room is a constant source of concern and stress as there is no clear path to an end.  I ease my angst every now and then, by taking him off his room duty and asking him to empty the fridge or take possessions to the basement.  At least something measureable is getting done.
      By Thursday, I am feeling hopeful but can see that yet a third list must be made; what things are not going to get done.  Cleanliness is non-negotiable; the house must sparkle but if a drawer or two is not sorted for weekend renters, so be it.  We prioritize what is necessary and decide that the lawn will not be mowed, only one freezer shelf will be available and although the bathroom contains three areas that are cleaned off for the renters toiletries, the medicine cabinet is not one of them.  Something had to give as we were beyond panic, near hysteria and approaching madness.
      I work hard with the Doctor Dolittle cast members Tuesday through Thursday and am able to stay home Friday from rehearsal to finish the house Friday morning.  My cleaning woman arrives at 8:30am (before the heat becomes unbearable) and we go to work finishing the house.  After days of pressuring my teenage son to finish his room, I walk into it to 8:45 to complete it for my cleaning people and find it in better shape than anticipated. It takes me another half hour to make it presentable for the cleaners.  The cleaning crew and I spend the next couple of hours cleaning, folding towels and making beds to perfection.  I provide the renters with 12 pillows and pillow cases and 12 towels including hand towels.  Organizing the linens alone takes a chunk of time.  The final couple of hours are always a time of unpleasant surprises as a look under a bed or an opening of a closet or cupboard reveals one more thing yet to be done.  Between 10am and 1:30 pm I clean the front porch, organize the back yard, finish linen laundry, finish packing my own clothes, empty the bathrooms, type up greetings and instructions for the renters, finish emptying the fridge, fill the cooler with stuff for my mom’s fridge, organize my paperwork, finish playroom, polish the grill, hide the candles, water the vegetable garden, backyard containers and front porch plants.
      It is a very hot day and my husband arrives home at 1:30pm with the kids to find me delirious and wandering around the house.  At 2:30 he kicks me out with the kids and says he will finish up, and for me to take our belongings over to my mom’s home where we are staying for the weekend. I am to take the kids to Stewarts for lunch as I have been rendered useless and unable to sustain the focus required to” bring it on home” with the finishing touches.  Renters are due at 3pm and both my mental and  physical state will make a bad impression.
      I welcome the banishment and head on over to Stewarts with my eight year old to pick up lunch.  While in Stewarts, my son first breaks a hot dog roll and then his meat sauce laden hot dog falls over and spills its contents.  Not a major problem for most people but I am losing it.  I say his name loudly and with irritation as other customers turn their heads to see what the problem is.  I turn to them and say” I just moved out of my house for the track season.  I’m on the edge.”  Nonplussed they turn away as my son shrugs his shoulders and we sit down to eat.
      Despite my mental state, I had promised the kids a reward immediately following our successful exit.  After a quick lunch we are headed over to the mall to see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2.”  On the way, we pick up one of my younger son’s playmates and I warn him as he enters the car – that I am “a woman on the edge.”  His mom who has just finished readying her carriage house for her full season tenant nods in agreement.  She too knows the pressure of the exit.
        The two hour long movie seems to have had a soothing effect on me and I’m ready to embrace the first day of track season.  We run over to my mom’s to change and head on over to a dinner at Fornos.  It is right near the dance studio where my husband teaches and he may be able to join us.  My teenager calls ahead for a reservation and we are seated immediately and smoothly.  And there we are wining and dining with everyone that makes up the” Saratoga Track Scene” – the homeowners, the renters, the horse people, the track lovers and other Saratogians who all contribute to this crazy, chaotic season. 

Epilogue –Although the last couple of days have been beyond the pale, I am actually glad that we got the first exit over in a couple of days.  Even if we had been given more time, I know in my heart that the last twenty-four hours would be sweaty, harried and unattractive.
After the initial push for the weekend rental, we moved back in and still had to exit from our home again on Sunday July 31st for two one week rentals.  This time the lawn gets mowed, the medicine cabinet gets cleared and I am coherent upon the exit.   On Saturday July 30th, my sister in law and niece call to say that they are coming to visit Skidmore College and would we like to have lunch. We take stock of our unimpressive state of readiness and decide to go anyway.  True to form, my final hour before our exit from the house the next day is stressful.  As I make my final survey of the house, I grab a tote and stuff it with remaining items.  I rush out of the house and arrive at the final show of Doctor Dolittle one minute before the curtain goes up.
      We move back in on Sunday August 14th happy to be home.  The question looms over our head? Do we unpack?  How settled in should we get?  We are out of town for Labor Day weekend and have offered the house as available to the realtors.  While we don’t wait by the phone, we know that the next call could be our call to action.  We’ll be ready.
P.S.  As of printing, there was no call to action for Labor Day weekend and the Martinez household began to return their home back to the time before the grand exit.

Diane Lachtrupp Martinez