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March 07, 2005

UK student plans US crime spree

This is cool. A 23-year-old student from Cornwall plans to travel across the US breaking oddball laws by falling asleep in a cheese factory in South Dakota and going whale hunting in Utah. There's a reality TV show in there somewhere, provided he makes it into the country. What's he going to say to the immigration officer when asked "What is the purpose of your visit?"

February 14, 2005

Ah, Venice

I sigh that everytime I look at these photos. First day back at work after my long vacation was extended by some nasty bugs, and though it's nice to once again walk among the living, I'd still rather be in my beautiful Venice.

GrandCanal.jpg

February 10, 2005

Take that, Pam!

I'm game for playing some culinary smackdown over pastry, Pam. Now that I'm finally getting around to getting some of pictures from Italy up somewhere.

(What can I say, I'm lazy.)

So, behold, all of you, not just some of those delicious sfogliatelle I described in Florence--in the lower right corner. These are surpassed in beauty and pleasure-inducing flakiness only by the giant ones on the left side.

If this doesn't convince, however, I have more where these came from.

(cue the evil laugh)

mwaaahaahaa....
sfogliatelle Medium Web view.jpg

February 03, 2005

The Harper's Index of Snow

Feet of snow outside my front door: 4
Feet of snow up in the mountains: 16
People trapped at the Planneralm resort: 300
Level (from 1-5) avalanche alert for the last 48 hours: 5
Cows killed in yesterday's local avalanche: 6
Barns destroyed: 1
Pairs of snowshoes parked by our front door: 2
Total hours out of the last 48 we've spent on snowshoes: 6
Times (while wearing snowshoes) we've been asked "Where's the dog team?": 1
People we've seen on snowshoes besides ourselves: 0
Soldiers used to clear snow from railway lines: 50
Days until winter break tourists start clogging the roads: 0.5
Projected number of travelers: 100,000
Days until helicopters start throwing bombs to start controlled avalanches so they can clear the roads: 1
Days we've had chains on the car: 2
Days since we've been grocery shopping: 5
Feet of snow in the forecast for today: 2
Days until the forecast says the snow will let up: 1

February 01, 2005

dag!

I'm such a snob. A complete and utter snob. At least when it comes to food. Maybe a few other things, as well, but where a meal is concerned (or really even a snack) I am an unrepentant elitist. Which isn't to say that I am only willing to eat fancy food. Far from it. I'm just fairly insistent that what I eat is good. Which is why, as a rule, I refuse to patronize restaurant chains or any of those touristy places on the waterfront in Seattle. Or tourist restaurants in general.

The problem is, however, that sometimes you want to be in a particular location when you dine, and then you have to choose from the available options in that location. For example, on the banks of the grand canal on the one warm day (which also happens to be the last day) of your magical stay in Venice.

I had opted to leave my bags at my hotel after checking out so I could spend one more day in Venice. I wasn't in any real hurry to get back to Rome. I walked through Venice that morning, completely in love, really not wanting to leave, feeling, in fact, much like I did the day I moved out of New Haven after graduation, knowing that I really should stay, and would come back if nothing else. I walked through alleyways and through San Marco and along the banks of the canals, and came to the Rialto and decided I really wanted to sit in the sun on the canal by the bridge and enjoy the warm(ish) sunny day and have a nice glass of white wine and some lunch and say goodbye to Venice that way.

One problem in that little vision, though. There are pretty much only tourist restaurants on the banks of the grand canal by the rialto. And tourist restaurants are the scourge of the culinary earth. I don't understand them in the least, and I am convinced that they are the reason that I can meet people who've been to places like Italy and Spain and France and claim that they didn't really like the food. Because the food in tourist restaurants is generally one step below something like TGI Fridays or Applebees in the States.

But I really, really wanted to sit in the sun and sip my wine and drink in the city with my eyes.

So, I descended from the bridge, steeling my resolve, and decided that I would pick the least offensive-looking of the places along the walk, and just hold my nose and go for it. Besides, I reasoned, I had spent four nights in Venice and eaten in four of the city's top ten restaurants a total of five times

(Oh, I finally made it to Acqua Pazzo on Sunday night, and it was very good. I had a Caprese with fresh, housemade buffalo mozzarella that was so creamy and tangy and lovely, followed by a Neopolitan-style dish of dorado in white vinegar with fried zucchini slices. It sounds maybe a little odd, but you'd be amazed at how nicely the zucchini, slightly salty and crispy set off the spike of vinegar and gave a real vibrancy to what is otherwise not a particularly strong fish).

Back to the gauntlet of tourist trap lunch spots...It's not like I could really claim that I had missed out, right. I could do this. I'm strong, and I've endured much worse travel misshaps, like the one that resulted in my ride in a police car in Pamplona. Compared to that, eating at a tourist restaurant should be a piece of cake. Er, tiramasu or something. So I walked, I regarded the menus, looked at the outdoor seating options, glanced at the food on the tables of the people already dining...

And got to the end of the walk. I hadn't seen one that I could imagine spending my money, and more importantly, my calories, at. Drat. I saw a little alleyway, and started walking down it, figuring there might be some little trattoria with nice looking pizza or maybe some scampi prawn dish down that way.

Stop! (Cue the inner dialog sequence)
Paulette: Yo, dude!
Paulette: What, already?
Paulette: Remember, I wanted to eat on the bank of the canal, smile at the people in the gondolas, dream about living here some day? Are you that ADD that you've already forgotten.
Paulette: No, but those places were awful! You saw them.
Paulette: That's not the point.
Paulette: I know, but I can't eat there.
Paulette: It won't kill you, you know.
Paulette: It might. And if it does, you're to blame.
Paulette: Fine. Let's just pick one.

And so I did. I chose based on what seemed like the most advantageous position to view the bridge and the canal traffic and get some direct sunlight. I ordered pizza and a half-bottle of white wine and a mixed salad.

I suppose the first sign that I would have been right to explore that alleyway for a secret trattoria was the wine that was brought out. Bolla Soave. Uhm, I guess I can be grateful it wasn't Franzia White Zinfandel or something, or Boone's Farm for that matter, but it wasn't much of a step up.

Then salad comes out. The first salad, in fact, I've had in Italy with iceberg lettuce in it. And no bitter greens, thank you very much. I've been so loving all the arugula and radicchio in salads in Italy, and the lack of bland salad leaves. Ah well. The dressing was too oily and not in a good way, since the oil was just kind of greasy, not fruity and spicy or olivey or anything. And then the pizza. I had ordered an anchovy pizza. Nothing to fancy. And I guess it was ok, but...The anchovies were too salty, and they needed something sweet to balance them, like red onions. They didn't need all the cheese on the pizza, which was too much, and they certainly didn't need the capers and kalamata olives, which only added to the saltiness. I couldn't eat more than a few bites of it without feeling like a slug turning inside out. (Sorry if that wasn't such a pretty image).

Ah well. Train to Rome. Good dinner in Rome, at a hip place near the Via del Corso called Gusto. I had meatballs, which were actually three very large veal meatballs with a lot of sage and onion in a white wine sauce, and they were delish. And a prawn and mango salad with arugula and radicchio and very nice fruity oil and sweet, aged balsamic.

And this morning, the flight to Amsterdam.

There are people you encounter in life. People who do stupid things, or just fail to do smart things. People you look at and think, how do they manage to get by. How, just in a Darwinian sense, do they survive, let alone hold down jobs and pay bills and buy houses and cars and raise children and not burn down the garage and that sort of thing.

And every once in a while, it occurs to me that I am one of those people.

It mainly has to do with time. Maybe it's kind of ironic for a project manager to have absolutely no sense of timing or deadlines, but I don't. I feel pretty confident in the veracity of stating that, with the exception of my senior thesis, I never handed in a single paper my last two years of college less than a week late. My friends make jokes about my lateness, despite my attempts to be early all the time. I'm always rushing out the door, something half undone, the coffeepot still on, teeth unbrushed (yes, I brush my teeth in the car) because I'm going to be late for a meeting. And I miss planes. More than most people. I missed my flight to Spain last year. And on a visit home last year or so, missed the connection in Minnesota. I almost missed my flight to LA this summer when, after deciding that since I'd need to leave for the airport by 4am, and would be out until 1am or so the previous night, I should just not go to bed. And then, of course, I feel asleep and woke up with something like 45 minutes before my flight took off and had to run out the door like a madwoman and book it down the highway at nearly 90 mph to make it.

And so, it's probably not surprising that this morning, when I went to check in for my flight this morning, the guy at the ticket counter said, "Amsterdam?" and I said yes, and he said, "The one leaving right now?" and I said yes. He handed me the boarding pass. "Boarding starts at 9.45."

It was 10.05am.

It's a wonder I made the flight at all. Some glitch in the catering service delayed the flight by about twenty minutes and I just made it. And for no good reason, really, except that I had decided to walk to the train station from my hotel this morning instead of taking the bus or tram and hadn't chosen the most direct route, and then wound up realizing that the train to the airport was going to get me in to the airport 45 minutes before the flight was supposed to take off, and then of course the train got delayed....

Well, I made it. I checked in to my hotel in Amsterdam. I had a lovely liverwurst sandwich and a Heineken at a place in the Rembrandtplein and then found the sequel to a book that I finished yesterday that I just loved (thanks, Ron, for recommending "The Rotter's Club". That's so far been my favorite book on this trip.) I'm still debating whether I should just go back to Italy tomorrow when I head back to the airport. I wonder if David would fire me if I didn't come back for another week or so...

January 31, 2005

Viva la France

"It is not in God that the French trust ...but in human rights and in the power and responsibility of ordinary men and women to make a good society without reference to gods or kings."

That choice quote is from this article in the Guardian called "If only we were more like the French." The writer ties a lack of revolutionary history to Britain's failure to embrace "egalite." Worth a read. And begs the questions: What's our excuse?

January 30, 2005

Eating my way through Venice

There is a very small and homey restaurant in Venice called Alle Testiere, which, if you are lucky and make reservations well in advance, you can sit back and spend a few hours while Bruno Gavagnin takes the day's catch from the Venetian waters and turns out some of the most balanced and interesting seafood dishes imaginable.

If you are very lucky and have not made reservations in advance, you might be able to find a free table not long before Alle Testiere closes for the evening and enjoy an entree, and perhaps one of owner Luca de Vita's incredible cheese plates.

If you are extremely lucky, you might also be seated at a table next to Annie and Liz and Graham and Nick.

As it turns out, I was extremely lucky on Friday night.

I knew of Alle Testiere, and the difficulty in getting a table there. The place is small and known around the world, and as I hadn't planned to come to Venice until the day before I got on the train here, I certainly had no hope of getting in. Which I was ok with because Thursday night I had dinner at one of the city's other top restaurants, Da Fiore, a small and pretty trattoria that does Venetian classic dishes superbly.

I started with the vegetable antipasti. There were roasted peppers and eggplant, a golden tomato stuffed with breadcrumbs and cheese, traviso (a radicchio-ish vegetable with long tentacles and a slightly bitter taste), baby zucchini, and carrots. For my entree, I had calve's liver, venetian style, which is served with carmelized onions and wedges of polenta. Every bite was perfectly balanced, too, with the sweetness of the onions off-setting the strong flavor of the liver. It was gorgeous.

Friday night, I thought I might see if I could get into Aqua Pazzo, a well-known pizza place, a little on the upscale side, not to far from where I am staying. But I wound up being online longer than I had planned, and I knew that they would be closed before I could get there. So I just walked out the door, looking for something that might do the trick. Just a few blocks from my hotel, I passed a nice looking place that still had some tables occupied, and noted the name in case I didn't find anything else, but kept walking.

A few minutes later, crossing a bridge over one of the canals, I stopped short, I'm sure confusing the guy who was walking right behind me. "Alle Testiere...Alle Testiere...Damn, that's..." and I turned around and marched straight back over, figuring I would take a chance.

Very good move. There are moments when you could go either way. There was a very good chance that at that hour, they would tell me that they couldnt seat me, and the kitchen was closed. Honestly, I wasn't really dressed up to snuff for a nice place anyway, as I was wearing jeans and the black walking shoes I've very nearly worn holes through the bottom of. It was late, and cold, and the idea of a quiet and casual place where I could sit with my book and quietly enjoy a light dinner was very appealing, especially as I'd had something of a big lunch out on Burano that day. But I figured it was my one chance to try Bruno's food, and I was at least going to give it a shot.

I asked for a table for one, and the waiter told me that they could seat me, but the only thing they could make for me was the tuna or a cheeseplate. I said I would have the tuna, and so they seated me by the door, at a small table right up against a four top of British folk who were just finishing up their main courses.

My dinner came, and one of the men at the table leaned over. "You're having the tuna? You are in for a treat!" and then he continued leaning across the table and watching me expectantly until I took my first bite.

And indeed, it was a treat. The tuna was seared very rare, and coated with herbs. I'm not sure of all of them, but there was certainly fennel sead and rosemary and thyme. The sauce was light, a bit buttery, and with white wine in it. It was just marvelous.

The next table ordered the cheeseplate, and when it came out, Luca, the owner, explained each of the cheeses, all Italian, most of them local and not exported anywhere else, and the order in which they should be eaten. There was also a little pumpkin/ginger torte to be enjoyed with the cheeses, as well as slices of pear. Luca also brought out a special wine for them to try with the cheese, as, it turns out, that Graham and Annie are regular customers and have become good friends with him.

Somehow, during the course of the evening, which started out fairly late, I got involved in conversation with them, and after ordering my own cheeseplate, and a glass of white to go with it (the bottle then being left on the table for me, a very nice chardonnay/reisling mix), Luca closed up shop, pulled out a special bottle of wine, poured six glasses and brought out a plate of fritelli. Fritelli are for carnevale. They're sort of like fried donut puffs, but light, and filled with warm zabaglione. They're kind of irresistable.

The evening went on for some time after the restaurant had closed, and by the time it was over, I had an invitation to join them the following night at the restaurant again.

Saturday evening, dinner started at 8. This time, I was smartly dressed, with my new black boots with killer heels and one of the incredible blouses I got in Florence. The five of us were at a corner table, with two other tables for two nearby. Luca came out swirling a pale amber wine in a decanter, explaining that he had opened it early that morning and had been letting it open up all day for us. It was French, and organic and unfiltered wine, that was rough and a little tart, and really fantastic. He explained that he had the wines picked out for the evening already and that we would next get to see what some of the local wineries were doing with the same style of wine making.

He then recited the appetizers. There is no written menu at Alle Testiere, and they only do seafood. Everything fresh. Everything seafood.

I was advised that the best course of action was that Annie choose the appetizers we would share. In total, we had seven. Raw prawns, still with their heads on, and served with slices of strawberry and cucumber, that were surprisingly sweet. Then a terrine of crab with feta cheese and mint and other somewhat Greek flavors, that were out of this world. There were scallops, served in their shell and cooked with a bitter orange juice and carmelized onions. There were mussels mariniere. There was sauteed octopus with a gazpacho sauce that was slightly spicy and a vibrant complement to the slightly crispy octopus. There were tiny, tiny shrimp with creamy polenta. And there were fried scampi, also with their bodies in tact.

By this time we had moved onto the next wine Luca had chosen for us, a tokai from the Veneto that was not at all sweet, slightly darker in color than the first, and very nice with the fish.

Then the pasta course. Everyone choose their own, and though I did taste the gnocchi with scallops, which was fantastic, I was absolutely smitten with my taglioni with scampi prawns in what was described as a rose petal curry. The sauce itself was divine, with a light, rosy fragrance and very light middle eastern flavors. I could taste thyme and cinnamin in it. It was absolutely delightful.

And another local, unfilter wine, drier than the last, and very good.

With the fish course, a red, this one a local Merlot/Cabernet blend, very smooth and with a chocolate background to it. My fish was a John Dory, served with blueberries and strawberries with fine herbs and an orange sauce, and it was delicious. The blueberry, especially, with the firm white fish made an amazing contrast and gave the dish incredible balance and lightness.

Cheese course. The highlights of the cheese course were two, though there were five cheeses on the plate, all them very good, and all of them served in enormous portions, five of each cheese. The gorgonzola, which is made locally and not exported from the region was perfect. It was strong and pungent without being too much of each. The talleggio, too, was creamy and strong. I usually don't particularly care for talleggio, but this one was not too pungent at all.

When we had made some good headway through the cheese, Luca came out, and explained that he arranged the three tables (ours and the two right near us) that way when he realized that three of his favorite clients and friends were going to be there on the same night, and he wanted everyone to meet. One of the couples was Belgian and the other Canadian. He explained that between the three tables, they'd been there over a hundred times. He poured a marsala that he had been saving, a glass for each person at the three tables, as well as one for himself, and we all drank a toast.

Today, I was also lucky to have been invited to join Annie, Nick, and Liz for lunch at the very smart and famous Harry's Bar, where the Bellini cocktail was invented. The place is warm and clubby in an old school sort of way. Astronomically expensive, but the food was good. I had a very nice veal ravioli gratin with prosciutto cotto and cheese, though everyone agreed that Nick's canneloni won the day.

And now, after all that, I've said hardly a word about carnevale, which is beautiful, especially today, as the whole city has turned into an elaborate masquerade ball, with people in beautiful costumes, mostly 18th and 19th century looking affairs, and beautiful, hand-painted masques.

This morning, I was walking along the grand canal, enjoying the costumes, and saw one woman dressed as a which. She had on a black dress with purple and black striped stockings, a long black cloak, purple wig, a tall black witch's hat with purple trim, and a white mask. She was walking along in front of me, obviously on her way somewhere, when a little boy, dressed up like a little 19th century gentleman pointed at her and giggled. She continued walking, but then, maybe twenty paces later, she stopped, slowly turned round and crouched down as she walked back over to him until he hid behind his mother's legs and giggled. And then she slowly turned back in her original direction, and continued walking at her normal pace.

A few minutes later, an Italian man walking toward her leaned over and screamed in her face, and then kept walking. She turned quickly, adn with very dramatic and florishy movements, fixed the back of his head in her stare and gestured to him like she was putting a spell on him. What was so cool about it was that he wasn't even looking. She was so into her character, though, that I'm not sure that she even cared whether anyone was watching her. I suppose that's what makes this whole carnevale thing so interesting and more than just the Halloweenish type of costume party we are all used to. People aren't themselves. They go to elaborate lengths to be some character from the past and walk around, dining in restaurants, shopping, taking ferries, in character, not just in costume. And Venice, as odd and magical and slightly surreal as it is, seems like the perfect place to become someone else for a few days.

January 29, 2005

Culinary Smackdown

Eddeger.JPG

There's no way I can argue with Risotto with Prawns, it will take the award over Wurst mit Kraut any day. But I can not stand by idly while Paulette claims the supremecy of the Italian pastry.

Today we visited the Eddegger in Graz, one of the K und K Hofbakereis (former bakers to the palace) with which I have a calorie laden obsession. And I contend that while the Italians do a fine job, a superior job with the main course, if you want pastry, you go to Austria.

We shared the Nusskipfel (lower left corner) a festival of buttery flaking pastry interspersed with ground almonds. Of course, there was coffee, too.

January 28, 2005

the italian charm school for boys

It's hard not to get lost in Venice. I would imagine that even those without an incredible talent for getting lost such I possess could easily lose their way in the labrynth of alleyways and squares and bridges and dead ends here. Some of the passageways, some even with shops and bars along them, are barely wider than I am.

Somehow, though, it's also entirely easy to get unlost. You no sooner realize that you've all but completely lost track of where you are, consult the map, realize that you can't find any of the recent street names anywhere on it, give up, and head once again in the direction you thought was right before realizing you were hopelessly lost, and suddenly, you find yourself at your intended destination.

It's quite a nice change from the whole, finally realizing where you thing where that realization is accompanied by the dawning understanding that you've actually walked completely out of the city and now have several miles between you and a state of unlostedness.

This may be one of Venice's charms, it's surreal and yet simple navigability. There are lots of them, many of them almost bordering on not seeming quite real. There are no cars, so it just doesnt sound like a city. There are no main boulevards to speak of, other than those filled with water. You are constantly crossing bridges and making unexpected little turns. And, increasingly tonight as Carnevale is set to begin, you encounter people wearing long black cloaks, white masks, and tritipped hats.

Now, as much as I love this maze of this place, I did want to spend some time today exploring some other attributes of Venice, including their glass-making. I've become completely enchanted with that frilly venetian style of mirror and chandelier that looks like it belongs on the set of Beauty and the Beast. Especially tht stuff with teh pink flowers and gold leaf. And I'm exercising all of my willpower not to blow Yogi's food budget for the year on some elaborate piece of art for the Girlie Room, though it would work perfectly in there.

Glassblowing here happens on the island of Murano. I took the ferrovia over and started exploring. A number of the factories will let you into the furnace rooms to watch them make the glass. An experience you would never encounter in the US with all of their safety regulations and such, but you can walk right in, and usually someone from the factory will happily explain the process, lead you right through all of the men (wearing no more safety equipment that street clothes, btw) building the glass ornaments, look inside the furnaces, get close enough to feel the heat on your face, that sort of thing. The idea is that you'll then want to buy something and feel more connected to the stuff in their shop because you watched their artisans making it.

I'd been into a few of the factories and shops and was trying to avoid spending too much time in the cold that seems to have followed me here from Florence, and so popped into one shop, where I was greeted at the door by a very large dog, who was probably a shepard/mastiff mix of some sort. I gave him my hand to sniff, adn then he shoved his head against the outside of my leg, in a very cuddly and affectionate way, and so I was petting him as I loooked through the showroom. There were two men working there, one who looked to be in his late 30s or early 40s and the other old enough to be his father. The younger called to the dog, I assume to tell it to stop bugging me, and I said that it was ok, and asked in Italian what the dog's name was, and then pet him again and told him (in English) how sweet he was.

The older of the men then said to me, in English, "I assume you were referring to the dog."

I smiled and said yes, and he asked me if I spoke much Italian, what I was doing in Venice, how long was I in Italy for, etc. The usual litany of questions that I get when people start up conversations with me here. The younger man asked me something in Italian which I didnt understand, so he asked in English where I was staying in Venice, and I told him the area.

The older man then said, "Your Italian is terrible. How long have you been in Italy?" I smiled and said I'd been here about a week, to which he replied, "In a week you should be able to learn Italian. You must not be very smart." And he smiled.

We had a great conversation from that point on. I told him that I had liked Florence more than Rome, and he asked me if I liked it better because of the museums or the wine. I told him I wasnt so much of a museum person, but the wine in Florence was very good, as was the food, better than I had had in Rome. He then replied, "Ah, so you like to eat good food, do you?" and I replied by patting my thigh and saying something about how that would seem obvious.

His response was perfect, though. "No, no. I was worried that maybe you don't eat at all."

I smiled. "Italian men always know just what to say."

"No. Only the old ones."

"Then how did you know just what to say?"

"Beautiful women from Seattle also know just what to say, don't they?"

Anyway, we chatted, and when I was ready to leave, he asked me if I had time. I was a little puzzled, but figured, ok. Sure, I have all the time in the world. So he told me I should go to the island of Burano and have lunch there. I asked him where, and he said it didnt matter but I should have risotto with prawns wherever I went. Then he asked me if I knew how to get there, and when I said I didn't he gave me the instructions, and then walked me to the ferry dock, apologizing that he couldn't go with me because he didnt have enough time in the middle of the work day. I thanked him, and he kissed me on the cheek, and told me to have a lovely day.

Let me tell you, Burano is gorgeous. It's small and quiet. They are known for their lace, but I think the main reason to go there is for the town on the island. Every house is a different color, most of them bright, and the little boats lining the canal are all also brightly colored. It's so too pretty.

So I choose a place for lunch, which was quiet, but had risotto with shrimp on the menu outside and went in. I was given a waiter who spoke English, who was very charming, and suggested that I could look at the menu, or, he would recommend starting with the spider crab and then having the shrimp risotto. Which is what I would have chosen anyway, but apparently Burano is also known for spider crab dishes.

They were both lovely. I had a glass of white wine, and then when I turned down dessert, the waiter brought over a warm cookie, like a round biscotti and a flute of sweet wine like a marsala and said that this was a Burano thing, you break off the piece of the cookie and dip it in the the wine before you eat it. The cookie wasn't sweet, and I can't say that it was much without the wine, but with, it was lovely.

I ordered espresso, and was also brought a limoncello. (This seems to be a theme), and eventually finished, and asked for the check, whereupon I was then asked if I had a good singing voice. I said no, why, and my waiter produced a small glass of grappa and said that it would help keep out the cold, but would burn going down. Both of which statements were true.

I walked back to take the very long ferry ride to Venice proper, where, of course, I feel asleep, though I didn't miss my stop. The ferry drivers seem to pull up to the dock with about as much ease as French people parallel park, so the slamming action tends to rouse one from a good nap.

I think I'm about warm now, so I'm going to venture back out into the cold to see what Carnevale related activities are going on. Love to you all.

January 26, 2005

Running around like a chicken without its head cut off

I finally took a bunch of photos today. Figures, though, it would be in a market. The Mercato Centrale in Florence to be exact, which is not unlike a smaller, less hectic version of the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, an indoor market in a large building with multiple meat, fish, vegetable, and oil/vinegar vendors, some stands to get lunch, a few places selling things like wine or kitchen gadgets or dried pasta and dried mushrooms. Small, but a really nice market. It made me want to cook something.

My main observations, which I'll supplement with the illustrations I took today when I get back:

  • Chickens look different. For one thing, they have more color, which somehow also looks like they'll have more flavor. For another, they still have their heads attached. Yum. Chicken head.

  • Fish are apparently more appetizing to purchase when they are arranged artfully in geometric patterns. Especially small, pink fish. Shrimp prefer to be lined up.
  • Sicilian oranges are special enough that they get special, individual wrappings.
  • Pasta can be made in a wide array of horrifying electric colors.

I had a recommendation for a particular spot in the market to get lunch, so that was the first agenda item for the day. (I had a late start of it because I got caught up in the novel I was reading and stayed up till dawn reading it. If you're interested, it was Paul Watkins' "The Story of my Disappearance". It's the most compelling of his novels I've read so far.) The place is called Nerbone, and they serve hot food, a a la carte, over the counter. You can then sit in the freezing cold at one of the tables in the market and enjoy it. They had a variety of pasta, meat, and vegetable dishes. I opted for the trippa a la fiorentina and sauteed spinach.

First, the spinach, was the best I've had here. I've been ordering spinach with garlic everywhere they have it, because I love me some spinach, dontcha know, and this stuff was just outstanding. They dressed it upon plating with some very fruity extra virgin olive oil, which was seriously just the thing.

The tripe. I know some of you will just never get my love of offal, and that's fine. I'm happy to be thought of as a bit gruesome and strange if that's what it takes to be able to continue enjoying the special pleasures of organ meats. And I do. In fact, about the only offal I've tried that I thought was awful was scrambled pigs' brains. Tripe, however, is something that I just haven't had much exposure to, other than in Pho. So I was looking forward to trying some here, since I know from Mario Battali's tour of Italy show that Italians are particularly fond of the nasty parts of animals. And trippa a la fiorentina just sounds so good--meltingly tender strips of the stuff cooked in a tomatoey sauce, topped with parmagiano-reggiano.

And it was so, so good. What a lunch. Certainly beats a cheesesteak with onions at the Reading Market!

Having finished lunch, and with a belly full of, well, belly, I headed toward the Uffizi.

On my way, though, the pastries started their serenade as I passed bakery after bakery. Finally, I realized that I had no choice in the matter and stopped in one to purchase a baby sfogliatelle. If there is a cult of born-again pastry lovers, I'll be the first to sign up for their services. It was like no sfogliatelle I've had before. Actually, that's not true. It was just like the best sfogliatelle I've had, only better. The outer layer of thin sheets of crispy pastry forming the clamshell crumbled in dust upon biting into it, leaving a little pile of the stuff laced with powdered sugar for me to sneak a final lick at when I was finished. Just like they ought to. But it was the filling that blew me away. Not particularly sweet, and the ricotta was so light and not smooth so it had great texture. Again, the merest hint of some lemon zest in it. Oh it was heaven. If Eve had been tempted with one of these instead of an apple, I can assure you we'd all be burning in hell for her transgression, not just tossed from the garden.

And then the museum. Which is great. Impressive and full of Michaelangelos and Caravaggios and Botecellis and the like. Great masters. Roomsful of them.
I want to like art. I really do. I want to discuss paintings and their symbolism and revolutionary approaches to brushstrokes and the crisis of form and stuff like that. But really, I'm kind of still all "paintings shmaintings". Is that really bad? Maybe it's that I'm hoping to learn something from seeing these, and I'm not, other than picking up some context for cultural references (which I'm uncultured enough to say I can get from watching a lot of Simpsons episodes as well).

One thing I did get, though was what people mean when they say some woman reminds them of a Botticelli. Not that anyone's ever said that me, but, you know, in movies and such. Well, I saw a lot of Botticelli's today, and based on that experience, I'm guessing it means that she's blond, has a disproportionately long nose and either a wistful or pained expression on her face. I think it's a pick-up line that would need to be applied carefully, since I could see a few interpretations in which that wouldn't seem overly flattering. But that's me. What do I know? I'm impressed with the Italian art of fish arranging.

January 25, 2005

pastry, pastry, everywhere...

What's a girl to do?

Everywhere I look, there are pastry shops. And not just pastry shops. Italian pastry shops. French pastries I can walk by and admire for their beauty and all, but Italian pastries, oh the pastacciotte and sfogliadelle and babas and sfincis and cannolis. Oh, it's just so unfair that calories consumed on vacation you can bring back to the states on your thighs, but grappa, not so much.

I was surprised, walking around Rome, how few pastry shops and bakeries I saw. I always thought it was odd (and not a little distressing) that there are no real Italian bakeries in Seattle (yes, they have ones that call themselves Italian, but then the only Italianish pastries they have are ever cannoli and tiramisu and I just need more variety in my life), and so you can imagine that by the time I got here, I was more than a little chomping at the bit for some good bakery items. But Rome, or at least the parts of it I walked through, seemed to be pastry-free zones. And this disappointed me.

Florence, on the other hand, is a pastry Mecca. There are tons of little bakeries with good varieties of biscotti and cookies and pastries as well as bread and panini. They tempt me. They call my name. Actually, they sing my name, not unlike the sirens, irresistable and charming and oh-so seductive. And it's not like I can just say, "sorry, it's the middle of the day and I just had lunch, so no thanks." These are Italian pastries we're talking about. The gold-standard of desserts in their native environment. You don't just walk by them callously unless you've no heart, no soul, no appreciation of...

Excuse me. I get a little worked up about this sort of thing.

But you need to take into consideration that when I leave here, it's not like I'm going home to Jersey. Who knows how long it might be before I can have a proper pastry again. They don't ship well and I can't bake. So I might need to stock up. Think of me as the Noah of sweets.

This afternoon, torta della nonna. Crumbly, buttery shortbready base, not too sweet, with a thin layer of ricotta custard sporting just the hint of lemony-ness, a smattering of toasted pignolis, a sprinkle of powdered sugar. Grandma's cake, is what it means. God bless the grandma who invented it, is what I say.

Yesterday, I had some biscotti with pignolis. I love pignolis. And then last night I gave in to the call of some tiramisu. I know the next ones that will claim their place on my midsection are probably going to be these cookies that they call pescatores, which seem to be loaded with raisins and pignolis. And probably, sometime not long after that, I'll break down and go for the good old clam shells--my beloved sfogliadelle, the mother of all pastries.

And it's not like I have been starving myself between desserts, either. Though today, I think I earned my lunch.

I went to the Academia dell'Arte to see the David. Which has really big hands, by the way. Freakishly big hands. And then to Santa Croce, which is much smaller than the Duomo, but still very pretty, and inside quite a bit more lovely. It was cold today. Cold enough, in fact, that it's snowing as we speak. I was planning on crossing the river and finding a nice place for lunch. I crossed the river, and was heading in the direction of where I thought a nice lunch in a warm spot could be had when another of those sirens lured me into her trap--though this time it wasn't the sweets, but stairs. As I've said, I have developed this need to climb practically every set of stairs I come upon, especially when they are outside and I don't know where they lead to. So I did, and at the top of the stairs was this windy road heading up the hill that I couldn't not follow, and by the time I had decided that I'd probably gone far enough and should head back before I froze completely through I looked up and saw a castle way up at the top of the hill and over some. The inner dialogue that then occurred went something like this:

Paulette: Ooh, a castle!
Paulette: Uhm, have you noticed it's freezing?
Paulette: Well, yeah, but it's a castle. I like castles.
Paulette: Right. Castles are cool. But it's like 2 outside. Can we please go find somewhere warm now?
Paulette: No, I wanna see the castle.
Paulette: Ugh! You're impossible. You know that?
Paulette: Hey, it's not like I ever get to spot a castle and just drive to it, let alone walk to it. Be a sport.

And so I went up. And up. And up. And then, I got to the top, and, well, I'm not sure I was still technically in Florence any more. I think my map ended about three miles before this point. I had one of those, "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto" moments.

And I didn't quite make it to my castle because the gates at the bottom of the entrance were shut tight. So, I started walking back to Florence, and when I got down as far as the Via Gallileo, took a turn so that I wasn't just retracing my steps and could walk along the ridge up there looking down on the city. Which was gorgeous. And offered no protection whatsoever from the wind.

At some point, I came upon an area during this walk, let's say about half an hour after getting onto Via Gallileo, when I spotted some stairs going into a woods near a church. Now, you'd have thought I would have learned my lesson by now, but then you'd be expecting a lot more from me than is entirely reasonable. Of course I climbed them, and then followed the path around the church walls. You could hear the wind in the trees and it was so pretty and serene, and at the back of the church there was a great view of the Tuscan countryside and I fell in love with it.

There's a great line in A Room with a View, that goes something along the lines of "Miss Honeychurch, Charlotte, Miss Lavish, the Reverend Mr Beebe, Mr Emerson and George drive out to see a view. Italians drive them." Well, Italians did not drive Ms Mckay and her metaphorical terrier to this view, but I'll say it was rather on equal with the one from that great scene where George kisses Lucy in the meadow. Oh Tuscany.

And then back to the road, the ridge, the wind. Another thirty minutes or so and I found myself at a hotel with a nice-looking restaurant perched in such a way that I could look down on the city--the Duomo, the Arno, and everything. More importantly, it occurred to me that a nice hotel with a restaurant would have heat, and as my pancreas was now frozen solid, and the original plan had been to have lunch about two and a half hours earlier, I thought this might not be such a bad idea.

The place was fairly empty. Three tables occupied, but it was almost three in the afternoon. I can't say I was super hungry, but I wanted something warm. Immediately upon being seated I was brought a glass of prosecco, and an urn-like thing with a light, moussy pate and some toast to spread it on. That was a nice touch.

The menu looked nice, if a little fancy. I went for the appetizer of bacala and potato mousse, sort of like the brandade de morue I made for Christmas, served with crispy artichoke slices. And for pasta I had house made pappardelle in a duck ragout. They were both great, but the pasta dish was just absolutely outstanding. And warming. Just the slightest rosemary flavor to it, earthy and not heavy. And I was seated right near the window so I had a perfect view of the whole city.

I finished with an espresso, and then my waiter brought me a glass of limoncello, saying that was from him. I sipped it slowly until I felt thawed enough to brave outside again.

And now it's sort of snowing. My current dream is to find a ten-foot tall space heater and hug it tightly. Failing that, I might just leave this Internet cafe and head straight for the nearest purveyor of babas. Mmm....babas...

January 24, 2005

a firenze

I know everyone has told you that Florence is beautiful. If you haven't been there, you've seen the photos and the film footage in A Room with a View and things like that, and you've said to yourself, "yeah, beautiful. I know beautiful. I've been to Paris. I know beautiful." Well, if you've been to Florence, first of all you wouldn't be so blase about it. And if you haven't then, actually, you don't know a thing about beautiful.

I'll pause here to add my own editorial comments on the beauty of this city. HOLY SHIT! I am being purposely vulgar because, well, actually, I don't think I could describe the beauty of this place in any terms that wouldn't be vulgar in comparison. So let's just not pretend and accept the vulgarity of language in this instance. Seriously. I was walking along today (well before I crossed the Arno and got myself hopelessly lost for several hours) and came upon the Duomo. And my first thought was "Jesus Christ!" which is, I guess, appropriate. The second thought was, "Holy Shit that's gorgeous" and that's sort of typified my reaction to this city ever since.

Needless to say, I like Florence more than Rome. Rome was nice, and had some really cool parks and ruins and stuff (and Lord I knows I like stuff), but as a city, wel, it didn't necessarily work for me. Or at least, I couldn't see myself living there. Florence, on the other hand, well, I just keep thinking how unjust it is that people get to live here amongst all this gorgeousness and the rest of us get excited about the Space Needle.

I went to the Palazza Vecchio today, which is beautiful enough to qualify as sort of obscene, and then took this tour of the secret stairways in the private quarters of the palace, which satisfied my growing need to climb every set of stairs I see and explore every nook I come upon. And I learned some interesting tidbits about art, alchemy, and architecture. Uh-huh. Actually, it was way cool, and getting to go up into the rafters above the ceiling in the Sala Cinquecento and see the amazing engineering behind holding up that huge and heavy ceiling was so cool, in a geeky architecture-appreciating way.

And then I walked across the Ponte Vecchio, which is lined with jewelry shops, and chatted with the American woman who was on the tour with me and said she wanted to bring back something nice for her daughter, and she liked the cameos but didn't think they were appropriate for a 30 year old, which is funny, since I love cameos and wear mine quite often. But oh well. On the other side of the Arno (which said old bridge crosses) there is plenty of shopping, and I was for a time concerned that might bank accout might wind up in a duel to the death with my handbag and shoe fetish. Not to worry. So far, I've only spent obscene amounts of money on clothes here, which wasn't even on my radar for Florence, but the tops I got today were just so original and cool. Oh my. The handbags and shoes are still calling my name, though, and I think it goes without saying that I'll be shipping some stuff home.

Oh, and I learned something last night. You can get bad pizza in Rome. Really, truly, godawful pizza. Like Pizza Time bad pizza (for those of you in Seattle). I knew it wouldn't be great. I went into it with very low expectations, but it was cold and pouring last night and there just wasn't much near my pensione that was open on a Sunday night and I didn't feel like being picky. So I go in, and pull the usual drill. Ask for a table for one, sit down and pull out my book, adn order. I went to the Quattre Stagione, which is a good staple--mushrooms, ham, artichokes, and anchovies. But this was just bad. And the small think of house wine I ordered was a bottle of really bad paint thinner wine, as it turns out.

But so, I'm sitting there, reading my book, and the person at the next table and across from me is staring at me like I'm a freak. I want to give a little context here. The tubercular, platinum blond obviously South American transvestite (probably prostitute sitting with her probably pimp) on the phone while eating a steak is looking at me and my book like there's something out of the ordinary about us. Welcome to the world of bad Roman pizza.

And then home. My room at the Hotel Ferrarase was on the 5th floor, but the office is on the second. On my way up the stairs, the innkeeper waves me in to tell me that if I plan to check out before 9 am, I should pay that night. I assure him that is not my plan, and then he offers me something to drink, we sit, we chat, and he tells me that he reads palms. He reads mine, and among other things, tells me that when I was a teenager I lost someone--a grandfather or an uncle--who loved me most. I can only assume (if such things carry any merit) that he is referring to my maternal grandfather, who died when I was 15 and who was, and is, one of the people I admire most in the world. And I was his first grandchild. The one who he flew all the way to Germany to be with as I came into this world, and then flew all the way back to Brooklyn to get a suitcase full of good Italian pastries for my Christening. My grandfather lives in my memory as the epitome of everything I could ever want to be--smart, funny, good-looking, charming, generous, honest, a good dancer, and a hard worker. I loved him with all of my heart, and that he died so long ago is one of the few things that still make me cry years later. So, you know, when Antonio (my inkeeper) said this, and said that this person was watching me carefully and would let me know it soon, it struck a chord.

And so tonight, I'm in Florence. And I decide to try this restaurant that Jay had recommended which is a bit of hike not only from where my pensione here is, but also from where I got lost on the other side of the Arno today, and it's cold. Really cold. And I'm basically a Paulettesical by the time I get there, though it's warm inside and the people who work there are really friendly, and it's a fixed menu with only a coupld of choices to be had (I went for the minestrone to start) and the main course comes out and it's veal hootchie cootchie. Ok, that's not how it was described. It was described as veal with potatoes. Which isn't making me think of the stew that I think of as the singly most warming and comforting meal I've ever had-the veal hootchie cootchie my grandfather made, served after a cold, long day fishing off the peir in Belmar in the middle of winter, served with his great sparkle of a smile at his name for it (no one was ever more pleased with my granddad's sense of humor than he was). And I can't help but take that as my sign. Of all the dishes I could have been served, to get a great bowl of granddad's perfect comfort food...

Tomorrow the Uffizi and stuff like that. Probably some shopping.

January 23, 2005

ruins are cool

Like, really, really cool. There I was standing in the Palatino, after having walked through the Colosseum, and staring at the Roman forum. So like, first off, how cool is it that these things are thousands of years old. But even more than that, they're huge. Really, truly, just freaking huge. And you know what I'm thinking about? Construction cranes. Seriously. Like how they use them for much smaller buildings these days that will be lucky to last a hundred years, and these guys built these things a few thousand years ago without construction cranes.

I have a new appreciation for engineers. Or, at least, for two thousand year old engineers. I mean, holy crap. Seriously impressive stuff.

I went to an opera last night. La Traviata. It was in an old church between the Piazza d'Espagne and the Piazza di Popoli. Very entertaining and it made me feel like less of a Philistine about the whole not appreciating art thing.

The church was also the most austere I've been in since arriving in Rome. Which isn't to say that it's actually austere. Far from it. But in comparison to the others, there were walls that were just brick and not covered in paint and mosaic and such.

Which brings me to another appreciation. That of the bathrooms of all the Italian-Americans I grew up around. If you're from my neck of the woods, you know exactly what I'm talking about. The shiny, colorful, busy wallpaper. The ornate, marble-topped little table for holding all manner of fancy soaps and silk flower arrangements and decorate handtowels. The gold-framed mirrors. The wall-hangings. Just the sheer amount of stuff to look at in a powder room that always amazed me. Well, it's apparently not some affected middle-class arriviste neurosis being played out. It's just in their blood. I mean, you go into churches and villas and the like here and anything with surface is decorated, usually in multiple ways. Plain walls with no frescoes? Let's paint false marbling on them? Marble walls? Let's use six or seven different clashing colors of marble in five or six different patterns. Two foot panel of wall between marble columns? Oh, I know. Let's paint vines and monkeys and urns on them. Ceiling? Well, obviously some creation myth needs to go there. Duh. It's like there is a genetically inbred impulse to cover every surface with as much decoration as possible. Italians, apparently, don't believe in understatement as an interior design motif.

Nor do they seem to believe in understatement as a fashion motif. I have never seen so many people wearing so much fur, gold, white leather, huge sunglasses, spike heels and pointed toes shoes. And in some cases, it works, but in most, I'm kind of left with the impression that I'm missing something in not wanting to emulate the whole Donatella Versace look. Oh well. Which isn't to say I haven't made a few fine purchases, including some mauve suede spike heels that I'm crazy about and will go really well with the mauve and brown wool miniskirt I found yesterday. Lucky for me, Italians are also under the impression that pink is the new black.

One more thing. I haven't taken that many photos since getting here, though I was thinking that would sort of be the theme for this trip. It's just that most things I could take pictures of have been photographed up the ying-yang, and I don't think there is much I could add to what better photographers have already done. And the rest of it, well, honestly, I just couldn't capture in a photograph, for various reasons, like the impact of my walk through the Villa Borghese the other day, or the sound of a dozen or so crows spashing in the little stream through it. There are images that have had an impact on me, like an old woman, lying on a piece of cardboard, barely propping herself up on one arm and crying as she held her hand out for money. I couldn't photograph that, and I wouldn't want to, but I'm not going to forget that image. Nor could I capture in any real sense the massiveness of the ruins and the realization that all those buildings that remain, at least in part, so many centuries later were planned with no CAD programming, with no construction cranes. It's kind of awe-inspiring.

I sound like a dork. But really, I'm not getting all new-agy goofy and reflective. It's just that I've spent so much time walking around and looking at things and not thinking about things that aren't right in front of me. I needed this trip.

Tomorrow I leave for Florence. I haven't a clue where my pensione is, though. This could be interesting...

Love to you all!

January 21, 2005

sono a roma

Which is to say, I'm in Rome. Today was my first day here, since yesterday was spent mostly being lost in Amsterdam. I am choosing to blame my inability to orient myself on the bad feng shui in my building at work. No matter how many times I looked at my map yesterday, I couldn't manage to not wind up somewhere other than where I was expecting to be. (On a related note, I can't seem to get my head around my hotel being to the west of Termini Station here in Rome; it just feels like it's to the south, which keeps throwing me off.)

Case in point. I had decided to go the Rijksmuseum, since it was one of the sites I had missed the last time I was in Amsterdam. There were signs pointing the way to the Museumplein every so often, and there were maps, albeit confusing and overlapping ones, in my giudebook. So it should not have been a particularly difficult task to accomplish. But the bad orientation karma I've inherited from Building 18 seems to have followed me across the ocean. I walked along the specified route, passed through the Rembrandtplein, and continued, following the signs toward the Museumplein, which, curiously, also pointed in the same direction for the Centraal Station, where I had disembarked from the train and started out in the first place.

Not to worry. Maybe space just bends differently in the Netherlands. I continue following the signs, and it's quite a bit further than I had expected. Then the signs start point in the same direction for the Museumplein and the Rembrandtplein, which, really, they shouldn't have, because I'd already been to the latter. But they did, and sure enough, I passed through the Rembrandtplein again, from a different direction than the one I'd arrived through before. I follow the signs again, and, lo and behold, wind up there a third time, at which point I decided to go to the Anne Frank Huis, using the map in my guide book which had been oh so helpful in finding the museum. This time, though, twenty minutes later, I was standing in from the Rijksmuseum. Go figure.

But you know, museums like that just don't do it for. I can admire the skill of the old masters--how they can capture the light and depth of a scene and all--but they just leave me cold. I guess I'm just a philistine, but I just don't really get paintings. Or at least old ones. I seem like modern art museums, but then again, the ones that I really love are as much about loving the architecture (Renzo Piano's fantastic Beauborg or Fran Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao, for example) as about the art.

Really, I'd much rather look at buildings. Or, as it would turn out, parks.

I saw a bunch today in Rome, the Spanish Steps, the Panteon, the Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, the Piazza di Popoli, the Etruscan museum, but the real highlight of the day, and my favorite thing in Rome so far is the Villa Borghese park. It's huge, and houses the Borghese Museum which is impressive, to say the least, nearly every inch of it covered in elaborate marble designs, frescoes, intarsia, and mosaics. But the park itself in truly incredible, and for the first time made me appreciate the artistry in landscape design.

That sounds silly, I think. Or not quite stating the point sufficiently, but really, this park is fantastic.

You walk up a hill from the Piazza di Popoli and there's an incredible view of the city spread out before you. You turn and walk into the park and, alternately pass through green areas studded with varieties of trees in patterns that are comforting and rhythmic as you pass by, without feeling rigidly laid out. You walk along wide collonades toward fountains or sculptures. Then happen upon a big open area with plane trees stretching out toward the blue sky against a terra cotta colored villa. And you realize that the park is like a piece of music with tempo changes, or sets for a play. The scenery guides you through different movements. You're looking out at everything laid out below you for a while, and then the focus shifts to following a path toward a clear destination, and then, suddenly, everything is open and reaching upward. The effect is really powerful, and relaxing. Maybe it's like being guided through different levels of meditation.

Now I'm sounding hokey, but I'm finally appreciating why Frederick Law Olmstead was such a stickler (which, I realize, is something of an understatement) for having his parks match exactly his vision--every tree the right species and in the righ place, every flower the right color, every walkway laid out exactly as specified. And I'm so glad that he was that way, and that there were other landscape architects with that kind of vision. Especially since it sort of makes up for my being too much of a lout to appreciate a Caravaggio.

More later, my dears. I hope you're all doing well.

Ciao!

January 19, 2005

Spoilsports, Part II

Hey, this looks kind of familiar. It's not exactly the same as the inauguration story, but the sentiments are all deja vu.

Alfred Gusenbauer, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, vehemently disagrees. Gusenbauer says it's inconceivable that the wealthy and powerful should waltz in all their finery while others mourn their dead.

Is there a theme emerging?

January 10, 2005

It means "snowshoe" in Italian

We got back from Italy last night. It took us about an hour to unload the car and find places to stow to the olives and biscotti and other treats we’d bought at a supermarket near the Austrian border.

Even the drive home was amazing. We drove through Sudtirol, crossing the Dolomites. This part of Europe is filthy with castles, as though someone has scattered a box of them across the lower granite peaks and plateaus and neglected to sweep up. There’s a medieval fortress around every third bend. There’s a village that looks like it’s been ripped from a Breugel painting at every river crossing. Okay, there’s a lot of odd industry interjected along the river banks, but it’s easy to ignore that yellow factory by looking past the stacks to the vineyard clinging to a tiny patch of land up high on the mountainside.

We spent last week in Tuscany where we walked on the beach and in the villages, drank café lattes, and ate too much pasta. Then we drove up to the Valle di Non in Trentino where we attended La Ciaspolada – the snowshoe races.

We ended up there because I write for a snowshoeing website. I write little bits and pieces that fall outside the realm of gear heads and competitors – book reviews, profiles of interesting folks who do stuff related to snowshoeing, lifestyle stuff. Since I’m here in Europe, my editor wanted me to go to the Ciaspolada. I should say that I am not in to competitive sports and I don’t like crowds. Yet here we were at a huge – 6000 participants! – race in a tiny village on the edge of the mountains. But I’m game for just about anything. What the hell.

We stayed at the same little hotel as the American team. Because the hotel thought, at first, that we were all together, they put us all at the same table so we got to share our meals with four snowshoe runners (Nathaniel, Charlie, Jessie, Tim) and their organizer (Mark). Nice guys, all of them, friendly and funny and interesting and entertaining company. By the time the races started, I really wanted them to win. It was personal.

At 8:30, we headed to the startline to scope out a good place to take pictures. An hour and a half before the gun, the area was dense with people, and when the front pack took off, the crunch of hundreds of snowshoes filled the air. The front runners passed us in a blur, snow flying, the runner from Ghana way out in front, and then, as the pack thinned, the non competitors headed down the hill, thousands of them, in funny hats and headbands and gaiters and costumes and shorts and tank tops, pulling sleds, walking dogs, carrying kids in backpacks, talking and singing and joking and laughing and mugging it up for us as we pointed the camera at them from our spot on the sidelines.

Our guys came in before we did - and we arrived by shuttle bus. They’d crossed the line, right up front in the top 100. We watched runners struggle up the hill on the snow that had been trucked in for the race, we watched the top 3 women spray the news crew with champagne, we watched number 188 – hey, didn’t we see him taking a shortcut through town?! – come up the hill with a surprisingly revitalized stride.

I loved it. I want to go back. I want to do the race. I haven’t a chance in hell of placing, or even having the numbers to qualify to compete. I’m no runner. But it was so fun to watch and it was such a festival atmosphere, all those people of all ages and sizes and shapes out for a walk through this beautiful valley, why would you not want to be a part of it?! Back at the hotel that afternoon, my team – they’re my team now – offered me nothing but encouragement. “You can totally do it, you SHOULD totally do it!” It’s going to be great fun to see them again next year.

Anyone want to sponsor an amateur?

December 27, 2004

Blowing the Whistle

Sunday morning we went up the hill to have a little lunch and to hang out with some folks who own a restaurant up there. The husband has been friends with these folks, well, forever, the way you are friends with people in a small town where you all go to tiny high schools together. It’s a very traditional postcard kind of village. The staff dress the part in their lederhosen and dirndls. Oh, and the food is quite good, plus, the chef is really a nice guy, I like him.

We arrived shortly after church got out. The neighbors were hanging out, eating cookies and drinking beer and wine – all this before 11 am! – and chatting about pretty much nothing, like you do with your friends when you run in to them at your local coffee house. We were sitting at the ‘stammtisch’ – the table that’s set aside for regulars, having tea, and three guys from the other room sat down to join us.

I know one of the guys from way back when I first started coming to Austria. He asked me if I was still “working for Bill” – a position that has a cache here that it just doesn’t hold in Seattle. The talk turned to health insurance (Austria is beginning to privatize) and language, and as it does when you have an auslander in your midst, to travel.

The older guy across the table from me told me about how, during the early 60s, he’d lived in Australia. He had to return to Austria when he got news that his mother was quite ill, and shortly after he got back to Austria, she died. He never went back to Melbourne, where he’d lived as a young man. Finally, just a few years ago he made the trip.

He was shocked at what he saw. The place was overrun with Chinese. “The Australians, they haven’t got a chance. The Chinese are everywhere. I have to say, having gone back and seen what happened there, I am glad it turned out that I stayed here in Austria.”

I was struck speechless. I am seldom at a loss for words, but as I looked at this seemingly cultured ‘gentleman’ nursing a glass of red wine, a speaker of excellent English, and a world traveler, spewing racism, I didn’t know what to say. I stared at him, round eyed, before finding my voice.

There’s some statistic somewhere that states that one in four humans on the planet are Chinese. I don’t know if that’s true anymore, but I do know that since my brother married my sister-in-law in Beijing more than 15 years ago, one in four people in my family are Chinese. When you go after the Chinese, you go after my family. My nephew, a kid in big pants who works at an artisan bakery. My sister-in-law, who knitted the scarf tucked in the sleeve of my coat hanging just over there, on the coat rack.

When people ask me why I don’t move to Austria, these kinds of experiences are what I think about. Maybe I could rationalize that some old guy in an old village shouldn’t color my perception of what Austrians are like. When I get all worked up over stuff like this, the husband says I’m as likely to hear the same kind of crap out of a guy at the counter at a diner in Montana. Yeah, okay. But. I resent the fact that I’m the one that’s shocked while most folks preceive this kind of racism as harmless.

I have been watching, with great interest, the news about Turkey and the EU. I can’t believe the noncommittal “We agree to talk to you about it a lot later with no promises to let you join” stance that the EU has taken. A lot of the objections by EU member nations look like racism to me. Marauding hoards of Islamic peasants, stealing their jobs, sponging off welfare, locking up their women…I’m not saying that the Turks don’t have serious human rights issues, and good lord, if the EU takes on the problem of the Kurds, that’s one big can of worms. But the racist overtones are too loud to ignore – at least to my sensitive ears they are.

Maybe I need to get a thicker skin at times like this. But what I’d really like are better reflexes. It’s the shock that slows me down. I need to carry a whistle. That’s the thing about racism in Austria, and in Europe in general, in my experience. It’s not like it’s everywhere, it’s not like it's a stop on your itinerary. Thankfully, it's rare in my experience, and honestly, most Austrians are perfectly fine humans with open minds and hearts. But you know how when you go hiking in bear country, you’re supposed to be prepared? I never leave my house prepared to confront racists in Seattle. Here it’s a different story.

December 18, 2004

Bread and Butter

Most Saturday mornings, Julius gets up early and runs in to Aigen to the bakery. He goes to buy kipferl, the crescent shape rolls that Austrians insist are the predecessor to the croissant. (This should not be confused with a vanillekipferl, which is a ground-nut-and-butter shortbread crescent shaped cookie.) Kipferl come with and without raisins. I’m not a fan of the kipferl, I find them to be a bit too plain, and Julius knows that, so for me he brings the brownest, grainiest rolls they’ve got on the shelf that morning. Yesterday he brought a couple of ‘fladen’ – oatmeal and multigrain flat bread about the size and shape of a Pop-Tart, and a couple of spelt ‘weckerl’ – square brown rolls that are dense and chewy.

We buy our regular loaf bread in Liezen. Julius favors the kornbeisser, a molasses colored loaf made from a finely milled dark grain, and I’m partial to the sonnenblumenbrot, the sunflower seed bread, a dense whole wheat loaf with a variety of whole grains mixed in. Or the kurbiskernbrot, the same thing, only with pumpkin seeds instead of sunflower. Occasionally, we’ll get a small brick of pumpernickel, which is nothing like pumpernickel from an American supermarket. Pumpernickel is moist, like cake, but also, sort of like a grain pudding. I like to warm it in the toaster for a few minutes before eating it with real butter.

If you want a more refined white bread, you can get a kipfel or a semmel (I think we’d call that a Kaiser roll). You can get a brioche (a braided egg bread like a challah) or a stritzel (the same, only sweeter, sometimes with raisins). You can also get a very good baguette. You can buy US style bread here, along with a "matching" sliced processed cheese – it’s sold in a red, white, and blue plastic wrapper with the words “American Toast!” emblazoned in Uncle Sam typeface across the front – but why would you?

There is one loaf of bread in Seattle that has made the cut for the discerning European bread eater. (FYI, it’s the Tall Grass Bakery rye. Tall Grass is in Ballard, but you can buy their bread at Rainbow and Madison Market on Cap Hill.) When you eat bread here in Austria, you understand why it’s so hard to find something that even comes close to good enough. Bread in Austria is Food, with a capital F. It’s not some spongy filler or a vehicle for a spread; it’s a Food with its own merits.

In the US, our standard source for bread is usually our local supermarket. Even if our market has a bakery, chances are they aren’t cranking out production style loaves of decent whole grain. You’ll get a baguette, with or without seeds, a sourdough, um, that’s usually about it. Maybe a ciabatta. We get the Italian style white breads. (Aside – the last time we visited our friend in Italy, she asked us to bring Austrian brown bread for her.) It’s because of this, the prevalence of over processed white breads, that bread has gotten such a bad rap. Maybe Dr. Atkins was right in suggesting that we give up carbs, but that’s because your standard American carb lacks substance.

The other day we were at the Merkur, a new chain supermarket that recently opened in Liezen. They have a bakery and they had just packed up a fresh batch of sonnenblumenbrot. When I picked it up, it was still warm. It held the warmth until we got it home and when I sliced the end off, sunflower seeds scattered across the bread board. I ate my fresh slice with a slab of butter. It was delicious and satisfying.

December 16, 2004

Old School Jesus

Salzburg29.jpg

Taken in the Fransiscan Church in Salzburg. I have more pics of Salzburg here.

December 14, 2004

Got Polka?

Honestly, no matter how much time I spend in Austria, there are some things I just will never understand.

You'll need sound for this.

December 07, 2004

Kantormania!

I have a odd - yet I think understandable - obsession with "News of the Jews" when I'm here in Austria. It might be because it's Hannukah, or maybe it's just the melodramatic "Last of the Mohicans" mindset I get in to when I'm here in the village. I'm trying to find my people, don't you know.

At any rate, I ferret out the little bits and pieces of news related to the tribe. Sometimes it's an Austrian Jewish ex-pat artist, returned to Europe to have a retrospective. More often there's a story about another old Nazi that's been found or an discussion of anti-semitism. In rare cases, there's a recognition and celebration about a Jewish cultural icon.

‘‘Happy Birthday Salomon Sulzer,’’ it proclaims, in public celebration of the 200th birthday of one of the town’s most famous sons — a flamboyant 19th-century Jewish cantor. Born in 1804, Salomon Sulzer served for more than 60 years as the cantor of the main synagogue in Vienna. He revolutionized cantorial style and singing and left an impact on synagogue music that is still felt today.

Cantorial style? Even to me, this seems mighty obscure. Still, I'm always heartened but whatever oddball thing the Austrians choose to recognize about this formerly significant sector of their population. From the country that said "we don't have an anti-Semite problem because we have no Jews" (I will have to hunt for attribution on that) , this is an unusual and welcome tribute.

December 06, 2004

The Cockroaches of Christmas

A schabe is a cockroach. A strohschabe is a cockroach made of straw. Or perhaps one that lives in straw, I’m not sure. The arrival of the these creatures signifies that the Christmas season has begun, naturally. After all, when you think Christmas, you think cockroaches, right? Um, yeah.

We got to Krungl early enough to watch the Strohschabe get ready to go. But before they got dressed, there was exhibition whipping. Again, you think whipping, you think Christmas, right? Actually, it was pretty cool. The guys stand in a circle and do this percussive thing with the whips, the sound is loud and sharp and rhythmic. From what I could gather – and information is rather thin on the ground when your source is a lot of punsch and gluhwein slurping Austrians - their job is to clear the town of leftover bad spirits. I’m not sure if it’s the giant cockroach thing or the noise, but if a big old haystack swinging a whip comes after you, you hightail it out of the way, that’s for sure.

Anyway, once the whole whipping circle thing has concluded, the boys get suited up in their Strohschabe outfits. The whole bundle weighs about 25 kilos, it’s a packet to carry around, that’s for sure. There are two grass skirts and they’re topped by the headpiece with the massive antennae sticking out of them. Getting in to it is a project, it takes a handful of strapping farmers to enclose a willing victim in to the whole package.

In the Mitterndorf area and surrounds, the Strohschabe are part of the Krampusspiele. Folks have gone “Krampus” crazy in this part of the world. The Krampus (pronounced grampus) is a wooly monster with a somewhat satanic visage and great big horns. The Krampus run though town wielding broom sticks with which to whack the legs of passers-by. You can tell they’re coming because they’re wearing giant bells, but you can’t get away fast enough, and frankly, you’re transfixed by these creatures from Where the Wild Things Are. In our town of Aigen, the Krampusspiele is small, there are six or eight of these creatures accompanying St. Niklaus on his rounds, but up the road in Krungl, they were having a full on Krampusfest, with 30 or 40 of them running the streets, terrorizing little kids, mauling the adults, and generally creating a ruckus.

In addition to the Krampus and the Strohschab, there were a whole lot of supporting cast members including a bishop, a night watchman, a blacksmith, a handful of angels, Death, the Kaiser, the “half-goat” something that looked like a cross between a bear and a giraffe, and the aforementioned Strohschabe.

Here’s how the whole thing goes down. The nightwatchman blows his horn. Then there’s a procession through town of all the likely and unlikely characters accompanying St. Niklaus on his rounds. They’re followed by the total chaos of the Krampus rampage. Finally, after enough little kids have been traumatized with nightmares that will last the next ten years, the Strohschabe come through and clear the streets, swinging their whips as they go. Meanwhile, back at the inn, there’s a whole routine going on where St. Niklaus interrogates any kids left standing. He asks them if they’ve been good, they recite a little poem, and they get some small treat for their participation, oranges, peanuts, maybe some chocolates. We watched a bit of it through the gasthaus windows and headed home.

I still have a lot of unanswered questions about the whole thing. I know that a lot of it is leftover pagan tradition from a pre-Catholic Austria, but I still don’t understand what, exactly, a Strohschab is. Stand by, I’m looking in to it.

There's a photo album from the event here.

December 02, 2004

Europe is different, sort of.

Day one on the continent finds me mulling over the definition of the term "theo-con." We all know what it means, but it's interesting to see how it's manifesting itself here as the EU hashes out their new constitution. Read all about here in the Guardian.

I'll have a lot more to say about this when I'm not so numbed by jetlag.

November 04, 2004

Garage Sale Reading

If you've got wi-fi, you might find this useful to read while you're out there on the curb getting rid of your belongings. (And hey, wear a hat. It's nasty out there and no one likes to sit next to the person with the cold on the airplane.)

"So the wrong candidate has won, and you want to leave the country. Let us consider your options. "

October 24, 2004

World peace and pizza pie

You’d think that with all the traveling I do, I’d have come to terms with flying. Well, I haven’t. I hate it. I don’t like being batted around in the air like a kite. I don’t like the tiny spaces the airline allots each passenger. I don’t like hurling through the air at hundreds of mph in a metal tube. I can’t stand it. The skin on the back of my neck gets damp, my stomach curdles, I spend the time vaguely nauseated and uncomfortable. I’m not really afraid, I tell myself, and indeed, I’m not sitting there thinking, “I’m going to die” but I’m not exactly enjoying myself either. I’m happy for distractions when I fly, be they quality reading material, slightly out of date Steve Martin movies, drugs, or the person in the next seat.

The weather was very windy in Tucson and the plane was very small. The man who folded himself in to window seat was tall, well over six feet, and dressed in flipflops, linen pants, a dark blue blazer with gold buttons, and a Rasta colored knit cap. He was reading USA Today and looking out the window. As the plane took off, I folded my hands into Namaste, closed my eyes, and tried to keep breathing.

About ten minutes into our ascent, my neighbor jostled me with his elbow. I opened my eyes and looked at him, probably wearing my usual white-as-a-sheet take off face. He pointed out the window. I leaned forward to look. There was a rainbow to the right. I’ve never seen a rainbow from the air before – it was bright and clear. “Thank you!” I said, and I meant it. I went back to my in-air meditative cocoon. You know I didn’t get to stay there, right?

“Do you have any questions?” he asked.

“Um, no. Do I have a questioning look on my face? Do YOU have any questions?”

“It’s just that I have this book I keep with me and if you have questions, you can read the answers in it," he said.

“Is there anything in there on travel?” I asked as he handed me his copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

My neighbor, let’s call him Bill (because it’s too easy to give him some good hippie name like Sanskrit or Wheat Grass), travels with three books everywhere he goes. The Prophet, the Bible, and a third book which he showed me when I asked. It was a cheap paper bound number with an Egyptian eye and an Ankh on the cover. I opened it up to see a picture of a handsome, graying, African man in shiny purple robes with red, green, and yellow trim. “Wow, what a great looking guy,” I said, because he was.

The ice was broken. We started talking. Bill is a gardener/organic farmer. He’s been living at a place called The Tree of Life in Patagonia, Arizona. When he first mentioned Patagonia, I thought he meant South America, which led to an amusing misunderstanding. Once we cleared that up, I learned that The Tree of Life is founded by a guy name Gabriel Cousens who apparently is in Israel right now where he thinks he can fix the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. . “Gabriel says there’s a teaching that says it only takes 8000 people to create world peace and he thinks he’s one of them. Either that, or he’s there to get more money,” said Bill.

Gabriel espouses some combination of Essene, Jewish, and Aryuvedic teachings along with the observation of a raw food diet. “We got in trouble for growing watermelon; it’s too high in sugar. It’s a really hard diet to follow,” Bill told me. “Sometimes, when we know Gabriel is going to be gone for a while, we go in to town for pizza and beer.”

We talked about Hawaii, where Bill was thinking about starting a new farm, and northern California, where Bill’s wife is, and Seattle, where I live. We talked about how we both hate to fly and how Bill, who was on his way to Cabo San Lucas on a redeye, was planning to get thoroughly doped up on pot brownies before getting on that flight. We talked about surviving the coming chaos, which I just assumed was the November election, and about how much we both hated to fly. Pretty soon we were descending in to LA over massive sprawling suburbs, freeways, and shopping malls. Bill told me how he had to leave Arizona because his astrologer said it was too hot for him there.

When we landed I pulled my Rasta colored bag out of the overhead and set it on the seat next to Bill. “Nice bag,” he said. I laughed.

“I’ll bet there are 8000 people in LAX right now,” I said. “Maybe you could get some recruits.”

I was in LAX for about an hour. I looked for Bill in the line at the McDonald’s but I didn’t see him.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Here's the site for the Tree of Life, in case you think I made it up. Also, I've posted some pictures of Tucson on my site.

June 01, 2004

The rest of the honeymoon

I'm predictably buried at work after almost three weeks away, but I know people want to hear how it went. For better or worse, my computer has me locked out of email while it backs things up and generally goes about the business of getting back to work, so here goes... hopefully David can add more later, and we can upload our (admittedly paltry) pictures from along the way.

The rest of our time in Florence was lovely. We ate twice at an astounding little place called Trattoria il Contadino, with a fixed-price 9 Euro lunch that just totally blew us away. Totally a local place, with workers and students grabbing a quick lunch. We had a much more expensive, and not quite as good lunch at another place the Rough Guide recommended, which precipitated a completely lost evening as our 3:00 nap turned into complete collapse back at the B&B. At about 9 David decided he wouldn't be able to sleep without some dinner, so he set out and brought back this amazing Florentine hamburger (on foccaccia, of course) from a street vendor. All the proof we needed that you really can't get a bad meal in Tuscany. Before leaving, we also did the bus tour of Florence, which was great, including a trip out to the old Etruscan town of Fiesole. So many places to go back and visit in the future... you could spend several weeks just in Florence and environs, and someday I hope we can.

Oh, just so everyone knows, we missed the newly-cleaned David (Michaelangelo's David, that is!) by a day... it was still scaffolded when we were there. Florence is replete with replicas, and we have several postcards of everyone's favorite marble stud, if anyone wants one. Next trip, right?

Our next stop, Montecatini Terme, is the oldest of the Italian spa towns. It's small, pretty, and overrun with old people. Also, it apparently believes that if the process of getting your relaxation arranged is stressful and confusing, the relaxation will be all the better. In short, I should have booked my desired mud-and-massage appointment weeks in advance, because when we got there we were SOL for anything other than a not-very-appealing soak in a mineral pool with All Germany's Grandmas. But we ended up having a lovely evening, taking the funicular up to Montecatini Alta... the ride was breathtaking and the village easily one of the most picturesque and unspoiled places I've ever been... just imagine cobblestone perfection overlooking your dream of sweeping Tuscan views at sunset. Plus, a really nice light dinner with an amazing Brunello di Montalcino.

The next morning we were off to Viareggio for the "lie on the beach vegging" part of the trip. If I had it to do over again, this would have been a good way to start the trip... it was beautiful and relaxing, and just what we needed after wedding, travel, etc. And if the spa experience was trying, I have to give the Italians credit for really knowing how to do beaches. Almost none of them are public... instead, the strip is lined with beach clubs ("balaeri," from the Italian for whale, as in "beached like," I suppose) that get expensive in the high season. But for us, 5 Euro for a beach umbrella and two sun chairs was a bargain. We spent the better part of a couple of days doing lying there reading, getting beer and potato chips from the bar, etc. It was just what the doctor ordered. We also ate at an amazing new-Italian place called Quinto Elemento (my restaurant-radar find of the trip, not listed in any guidebook) and Cafe Margherita, originator of the eponymous basil and tomato pizza.

Our silliest adventure of the trip had to be our effort to find the strip of gay clubs in Torre del Lago, the next town over. Versilia, the subregion the comprises the "Tuscan Riviera," is apparently Italy's gay-friendliest region. Torre del Lago is home to several well-reviewed dance clubs, restaurant, and even a gay beach club. So David and I set out by bus, only to find it dropped us in town, not at the beach. After a 30 minute trek through what was basically a mosquito-infested forest preserve, we reached the beach... which was mostly shut. Apparently, Wednesday in late May is still not high season. There were a few restaurants open, but it was a shellfish lover's heaven and therefore almost entirely unfit for David consumption. We finally found a pizza place open and had a nice meal. We went on to check out Mamma Mia, the one open club, which was hosting basically a karaoke version of the Eurovision song contest. The Italian boys were cute in a completely standoffish sort of way, continuing our trend of meeting almost nobody on our whole trip. (We were hoping to meet landed gay gentry who would find our newly-married status touching and invite us to come back every summer to their beachfront villas, of course.) After some confusion, the bartender was able to summon a cab for us back to our hotel (a great, campy combination of Art Deco, Liberty, and Austin Powers style)

During our cloudy day in Viareggio, we hopped a bus for Lucca, which is a magnificently preserved renaissance town with its siege-proof fortifications intact. We had a nice lunch and a lovely walk along the walls, and visited (more) lovely old churches.

From Viareggio Friday morning (5/28) we hopped the train to Pisa for a quick tour of the town before leaving for London. Quick summary: the Leaning Tower is impressive and leans even more than you think. The rest of Pisa: a pedestrian-unfriendly, dirty, and generally unsatisfying stop on the tour. And yes, let me confirm my status as American-on-holiday by saying, "why did they put the three things you want to see on the opposite side of town from the station?" Generally exhausted by Pisa, I was infuriated by the airport, Ryanair's extra-baggage shakedown tactics (which cost us like 80 Euro, almost as much as one of our tickets), and the worst-designed airport cafe in the world. But our flight to London was fine (after a delay). Ryanair is probably great if you've got carryon bags for a three-day beach weekend; for anything else, I'd say skip the only carrier I've flown that somehow manages to make Southwest Airlines seems luxurious by comparison.

Anyway, I may have more time later to talk about London, but the summary of our time there is pretty easy: great rugby, horrible organization. The second Mark Bingham Cup international gay rugby tournament featured some great rugby, good socializing, and easily the worst attempt at pulling together an event I've ever witnessed. It was ridiculously overpriced (more than $500 for the two of us) yet we got one meal, two parties with admittedly good entertainment, and not even a single free drink. Given London's crushing expense and the Pound's overwhelming (almost $2) strength, just enjoying a beer with our rugby brothers required serious financial planning. Being there with the Quake was great--confirming for both of us that we've made some wonderful friends through the team--but for a lot of the guys it was a struggle to get there, and I felt really bad that the tournament's stingy chaos made their time there something of a nightmare.

Probably the best part of our visit to London was getting to spend more time with Woody and Sara Robinson and their lovely daughter Ellie. Woody (Mike, to most people) was of course David's best man at the wedding. They had just returned from Canada on Wednesday, but managed to come spend the afternoon with us Saturday at the tournament and see David play. Afterwards, we went for an authentic pub dinner. It was more time with them than we got to the wedding weekend, and it was a great visit. Everyone knows how much David has come to love my old friends, and for me the feeling is just as strong about his.

Someday I want to go to London at the beginning, not the end, of a marathon European vacation... this is my second year in a row to get there already worn out, and it just doesn't make for a fun stop. London is exhausting under the best circumstances, and feeling tired, broke, and ripped-off isn't the best way to experience London, or end a honeymoon. Friday night, furious that as things happened I wouldn't have a chance to play even five minutes with the Quake the next day (due either to the absence of a loser's bracket, or the Quake's unwillingness to play in one, depending on whom you ask), I had a minor meltdown after a tour of several of London's loudest, smokiest, sweatiest gay venues, and was a really pissy about it to David (whose fault none of the above was). But being the prince that he is, he forgave me, we made up, and we enjoyed a day of window-shopping in Covent Garden before headed to the tournament to watch the finals. (My knee-nemesis, the SF Fog, won the Bingham Cup again, in a crushing defeat against the Manchester Spartans.) In all fairness to the tournament, David got to play in three great games (which I tremendously enjoyed watching), and it was a great chance to meet rugby players from all over. But by Monday morning, we were definitely ready to return to Casa Nonfamous and our very own bed. Thanks to an unexpected upgrade to World Traveller Plus on BA, our trip home was really, really lovely.

I (or better yet David) will write in a separate post the great news we got upon our return... but it was the perfect end to a honeymoon that was perfect in its own way. David and I enjoyed much of the best the world has to offer, in terms of food, beautiful sights, and amazing art--and so much the more for being together, really together as "husbands for life", for the first time. At the points in the journey that were rougher, we never failed (after a fashion) to look at one another and realize that whatever happened, we were together and would get through smiling at the end. And if that is not a great introduction to married life together, I don't know what is.

May 23, 2004

Wien --> Firenze

Well, I got my wienerschnitzel, which was nice. But with apologies to Pam, I didn't get to eat mehlspese at Demel. It was mobbed. On Friday, everything in the Innere Stadt was a mess of tour groups, rude German tourists, and cringe-worthy Americans. Kohlmarkt and Kartnerstrasse were so packed that I was literally claustrophobic outdoors. I did manage to successfully use all forms of Viennese public transport (U-Bahn, tram, and bus) and got to all the parts of the city I really wanted to see. Somehow, though, I kept ending up at the Hofreitschule Spanische everywhere I went--but alas, no Lippenzauner were on display. Only the local daily giving away a car.


By the time I met David at 5 to head to the train station, I was ready for Italy--just a hort, luxurious first-class sleeper train trip away. We even got to use the first-class lounge at Sudbahnhof, which was great because the main station was crawling with freaks. Unfortunately, the biggest freak was the conductor on our sleeping car. In the interests of marital bliss, I'm opting to elide most of the details of the trip, save these: trauma unfolding the beds, no dinner, and the angriest I've even seen a grown man fighting an inanimate object (other than Dad). But then again, I was with David finally, the honeymoon began in earnest, so how bad could it be?

We got to Florence at about 6:15 am, kicked around a while waiting for the B&B to open, etc. The B&B is nice, though dragging our bags to the 3rd floor (that's 4th floor for us Americans) was, well, a drag. We went for breakfast while our room was made up, and decided to climb the 463 steps to the Duomo before the crowds arrived. Brilliant idea, amazing view, but one hell of a climb. Sweaty, exhausted, and in desperate need of a shower, we went back to the B&B for a well-deserved rest.

I'm almost out of time here, so I'll leave our amazing meals for another post. Paulette, we wept for your absence at lunch yesterday--I'll leave it at that. And also, our lack of love for the Uffizi Galleries--complete and unedited.

Anyway, molti baci agli nonstranieri nonfamosi!

May 21, 2004

Listening to Franz Ferdinand in Vienna

"Gruss Gott" as they say here, though I'm not sure anyone has spoken to me the entire time I have been here. Vienna is lovely but as David has been in meetings since we arrived it has been a very quiet day and a half for me. For those of you who may find it impossible, imagine if you will: Jay, quiet as a kirchemaus.

Our flights were good, if cramped; David slept quite a bit, lots more than I did. We got to Vienna (Wien) about 6:30 local time Wednesday, took a taxi to our hotel, and then had a nice snacky sort of dinner and bottle of wine at a restaurant one of our guidebooks recommended. After a brief tour of a couple of the nearby bars (just to mkae sure we were exhausted) we headed back to the hotel. We were both out like a light.

David got up early to head to his meetings (just a five-minute walk thanks to my excellent hotel-picking), and I couldn´t go back to sleep after he left. With my guidebook and my ten words of German I set out after an amazing breakfast at our hotel, which is quite nice and right on the Ring (marking the old city walls of historic central Wien). I was stunned to find the streets almost weirdly quiet... it was so nice to be in a peaceful urban setting. Then it got creepy--where was everyone? having enjoyed the silence quite enough, I pulled out David´s iPod (mine appears to be toast at the moment) and started listening to the eponymous debut album by Franz Ferdinand. We had downloaded it just for this ironic thrill. Where are the archdukes of yesteryear?

Anyway, I had just gotten to the really good song, the first single, when I arrived at MAK, the completely amazing decorative-arts museum. I spent about 4 hours inside, terribly glad I was alone... because nobody else would have geeked out on the centuries of art glass on display. From 15th-century Florentine martini glasses (by the look of them at least) to the 1880s Baccarat vases to the 1950s Costa art glass, I was enthralled. My glasswear fetish sated, I spent some disturbing time in the Otto Muehl exhibit before heading out. Oh, also, I completely adored the display of Beidermeier furniture curated by Jenny Holzer, complete with her trademark electronic captions at the top of the ornate Baroque hall. My only disappointment was the gift shop, which had no good postcards.

After (seriously) 4 hours there, I needed some food. So I visited the nearby Cafe Prückel, which was great. It was pushing 80 degrees and I sat in the sun with my goulasch und bier, getting really sleepy. David was planning to stop back by the hotel between 5 and 7 (it was like 3:30) so I thought I'd run back to the hotel for a nap. I woke up at 9:30! Apparently David's boss arrived late and needed a recap of the day's events before heading to a work dinner. I wasn't hungry, and for some reason was convinced David would be back soon, so I drew a bath in the HUGE tub, read about giant squid in the New Yorker, and waited some more. (German MTV is really wierd, I learned.) Anyway, by the time 11:00 rolled around, I was hungry... David arrived just I was going to head out in search of food. He was tired and apologetic about missing me earlier, and in the combination of those two I was able to convince him to head out with me. Unfortunately, 11:00 is the witching hour for restuarants here--they'll serve you drinks but not much else.

So against my better judgment, I ended up eating at a Mexican restaurant in Vienna. The Caipirinha was excellent, and the chicken burrito better than I had feared. With that, it was bedtime. David and I both zonked out--but not before mentioning that it had been a public holiday (Ascention Day, apparently), which explained the preternatural stillness of the city.

Today has indeed been much busier around town. David and I got up, checked out, stowed our bags, and had another huge breakfast. (Clearly, nobody here has heard of Atkins--it's bread galore, with no complaints from me.) I headed out on foot to the Karlsplatz/Margareten district... which as it turns out is less pedestrian-friendly than the Ring. And kind of gross. So when I saw a stop for the "hop-on" tourist bus, I thought I'd wait for it. And wait I did. For like an hour. And this whole time, chartered tour busses from Germany, France, and Spain disgorged elderly Europeans in front of me. Choking in diesel fumes and stepped on by one too many ancient Deutchlanders, I was getting pissy and misanthropic. I finally gave up on the tour bus, which would have been a handy way to see the sites, and opted for public transport. I'm not actually sure I needed to bother with the €5 daypass, since nobody seems to actually use any form of payment onboard. But Now I've found my way to a livelier area and an really nice new internet cafe owned by a family of Turks. The Austrians really seem to dislike the Turks, by the looks of the slightly menacing (if impossible to interpret) election posters up everywhere, but they look like upstanding Austrians to me.

Anyway, I have about 5 more hours before I meet David back at the Hotel to head to the Sudbahnhof to catch the night train to Florence. I'm ready to get to a country where I speak the language (at least more than here) and ready to enjoy the with-my-husband part of the honeymoon. That said, the past couple of days have offered a much needed chance to decompress from the wedding craziness.

I'm hungry... if I can just find somewhere to get some wienerschnitzel I'll be happy.

April 23, 2004

Flying is funny

Great edition of Ask the Pilot in Salon today. The topic is amusing in-flight PA announcements. There's been a list going around for years but I suspect many of these are apocryphal. Those in Ask the Pilot this week are a fresh batch with an altogether truer ring. Here are a couple of examples:

We were taxiing at Heathrow on British Airways when one of the crewmen came on the P.A. making the usual end-of-flight announcements, and slipped in casually: "Anyone standing before the fasten-seatbelts light is switched off will be shot." It's the sort of thing that would cause horror today, but at the time everyone laughed, the light tone reinforced by the fact he sounded so ... British, in that cute and harmless way. I suppose if it had been Lufthansa it might have come across more menacing.
Flying to St. Louis, the pilot got on the public address system near Pittsburgh and said: "A special treat for the passengers on the left side. Look straight down and you'll see a very large white house. Here, let me show you." [At this point he actually tipped the plane so we could see.] "That's my ex-wife's house. I know it's her house because that's her lawyer's BMW in the driveway." He was very cheerful about the whole thing, but a lot of passengers looked at each other with a mix of laughter and anxiety.

See the full article for some other great ones.

By the way, Patrick (the column's pilot-author) is soliciting entries for a favourite airline poll. If you'd like to read my entry, read on.

I've gotta put my vote in for British Airways. I've been loyal to them ever since, in what I can only assume was either a bureaucratic error or a misguided attempt to gain a share of my company's pitiful travel budget, they upgraded me to the Silver tier of their executive club. It was worth it for the executive transit lounge alone. Spacious, sunny places with the relaxing lilt of running water are a haven in bustling metropolises like Heathrow or glorified backwater bus terminals like Sea-Tac. I'd always make a point of getting to the airport at least two hours early so I could settle down with a plate of sandwiches, a vodka tonic (with more olives than most would deem necessary), and read the Guardian cover to cover.

Another perk was that in the early days (around the Millenium) on my frequent LHR-SEA jaunts, they'd upgrade me from economy to business about half the time. The summertime hop across Greenland was always a favourite trip of mine, and somehow the views of the glacial fields were all the better from a comfy leather seat. I was actually a little sad (but juuuust a little!) when the flat beds came into business as I'd usually be snoring through that amazing view.

After a while I think they must have figured out that my company was never actually going to spring for a business fare of its own accord. The upgrades started to dry up, and after about three years my Silver membership lapsed. But I still fly them when I can. Mostly it's because they're the only airline with a direct flight to London from Seattle, but it's also just a bit in the hope that one day, just maybe, I'll be in that club again.

P.S. I also love the way they don't censor their movies, even in economy. I think I even saw a plane crash in an onboard film, once.

March 07, 2004

Under the Influence

I'm the kind of person who's very much driven by daylight, but every time I cross the Atlantic, I end up seeing an entirely different part of the day. For the first few days that I'm on the East side of the Atlantic, I sleep until 11 am and am shocked to see the bright light of the sun when I roll up the blinds. On the Pacific side, I find myself watching late night reruns of Seinfeld (a show I've never liked) and thinking "God, what a great show!". I loved Lost in Translation with my whole heart, not just for the way it captured the passing intimacies of two strangers, but for the way it contained the feeling of standing next to yourself while adjusting - or not - to a far away place. And I love this article by Pico Iyer in the NY Times magazine for the same reason.

"But for a week -- at least -- after I arrive, I'm not myself. I look like myself, perhaps, I may sound something like myself, but I'm wearing my sweater inside out and leaving the unremarkable movie ''Bounce'' embarrassingly moved. "

I crossed the Atlantic in December 2003. At the recommendation of several seasoned travelers, I spent part of the flight in a quiet sleep facilitated by something called "Ambien." I woke up startled to find we were about an hour from Amsterdam, 7am. I'd arranged to meet a fellow traveler in the lounge and he found me alert, talkative, and thirsty as all get out. The distraction of his company kept my mind off the fact that I was jittery and disoriented. When my connecting flight to Vienna took off, I passed out almost immediately. As I shuffled in to the arrivals terminal, the first thing I saw was the new Starbucks. I did not know where I was.

"Another time, I decided to do my taxes as soon as I got off the plane and, happily ignoring a $40,000 payment I had received, faced month after month of I.R.S. letters and threats."

Just like Iyer, one year I decided to take on a enemy bigger than myself before the jet lag had subsided. I chose my auto insurance carrier and embarked upon a war that took many months to resolve. I still tell everyone I know not to use GEICO, but in retrospect, it may have had something to do with the schizophrenic manner in which I chose to interact with them. Fueled by the success of having the late fees removed from my credit card bills, I decided tackle GEICO next. It was 3 am on my first night back in Seattle, and had I no idea of the state of my finances. Never admit this to your insurance company. (Also, I'm not so sure anymore that 24 hour customer service is a good idea. It's required for emergencies, but for your regular business calls? Think about why you're up before you pick up the phone, okay? And think about who's working the 3am shift.)

I'm a convert to the wonders of Melatonin. It doesn't eliminate jet lag entirely, but it does shortens the amount of time it takes me to get over it. The formula you hear all the time is one day for every hour of time change - with Melatonin it takes me 5 days to adjust to an Atlantic crossing, without, 10. After reading Iyer's poetic prose about jet lag, I'm wondering if I shouldn't toss away the Melatonin crutches. I've seen some interesting late night programming on PBS while jetlagged, and there's something about going to buy groceries when the aisles are blocked with stacks of new merchandise. And the middle of the night silence we have here in Austria is unlike any of the quietest of Seattle nights. The only time I experience those hours of life are when I'm under the influence of jet lag.

"When he was a boy, I recall, Rudyard Kipling woke one night with a start and realized that he had been walking in his sleep. All the way through the dreaming house and out into the garden, as the light came up. ''The night got into my head,'' he later wrote..."

"The night got in to my head." Perfect phrasing for the way I feel when I'm jetlagged. I'm almost looking forward to it.

In the Realm of Jet Lag - Pico Iyer

February 16, 2004

Reality TV: Survive This!

The Austrian reality show Family Swap takes the concept of the British hit Wife Swap further by mixing people with different backgrounds.”

Salman's 35-year-old girlfriend, Melike Sanalmis, endured even worse abuse while living with a racist Viennese family. She calmly tried to reason with her hosts to make them question their prejudices.

As a “hidden minority” – meaning you don’t spot right away that I’m not your standard issue WASC (White Austrian Socialist-ish Catholic) – I am unfortunately privy to the run of the mill ignorance based racism that Austrians are so often accused of. My personal experience (disclaimer: vanity link) with this ugly animal is blissfully limited. Still, if only this had hit the papers sooner! I would have done more than tune in - I would have applied to participate!

February 05, 2004

The Dog Days of Winter

The village of Krungl, where I park the car to head out on the ski trails, has been transformed over the last two days in to Dogtown Central as the teams arrive for the “Winter Stakeout” – a three day weekend of terrible music, excellent beer, smoke filled tents, sausage off the grill, and, most importantly, dogsled races.


The dogs, according to the guy that runs the Linz team, are a bit less than thrilled about this, not because they don’t like to race or because they don’t like a good festival, but because it’s unseasonably warm. Yesterday it was up in the high 50s, though on the snow, it felt much warmer, and I was not dressed in the thick furry pelt favored by the sled dogs.

On Wednesday, only the early bird teams had arrived, staking out the best locations on the rapidly melting snow. While the dogs and their owners lolled about in the sun, a team of locals set up a green and white beer tent in front of the big farm that faces the meadows. I asked if it was okay to pet the dogs and take their pictures. The lead human told me about how they would love to go to Alaska to run there, but the travel is too hard on the dogs and they need so long to recover that it takes too much time. So they stay on this side of the Atlantic, traveling with their team through Switzerland, Austria, Czech Republic, Italy…

By Thursday afternoon, the parking area was full of trailers. Harnessed dogs were staked out on every available dry surface. Things had started to get muddy and even though there we were outside in the open air, the air had started to acquire a certain doggy scent. There was a lot of conversation amongst the dogs; yowling, grumbling, moaning, and loud expressive yawning – not much barking though. It really does sound like they’re just lying around catching up, speaking dog to each other, occasionally alerting a human that a belly needs scratching or some ears need playing with.

For 10 euros, your kids could run a team of four around a prepared track of about one kilometer. We watched two enthusiastic ten year olds go for a spin. The team owner set them up, told them what to do, and off they went – for about 20 yards. The dogs stopped, milled around for a few minutes, the kids shouted at them, and then they seemed to reach an agreement, the dogs shooting off, pulling the sled behind them, the girls on the sled radiant with glee. In the background, the PA system broadcast a much too short loop of music featuring “Those Were the Days,” a German beer hall tune, and, heaven help us, “Who Let the Dogs Out.”

The dogs are incredible. They’re gorgeous, for starters, many of them have that characteristic one brown eye and one blue eye - and it's so striking. They’re very, very, clean, with coats that look like they were just washed, dried, and brushed. And they are unbelievably well behaved and nice. They don’t jump, they don’t bark, they don’t snap, they are unflustered by kids hovering around them in tight circles, they are really amazing. To top it off, they are very friendly. I don’t know enough about huskies to say if this is a temperamental disposition, but it certainly speaks highly of the owners.

We’re heading up to catch the races today. (Friday.) They run early, before it gets too hot, and because it’s a Friday, the crowds shouldn’t be too daunting. Maybe we’ll park the car up in the next village and ski in to avoid the hassle of getting in to town. At any rate, dog days are here. Woof. Mush!

Pictures from the races are here.

January 21, 2004

You look mahvelous!

We love our neighbor to the south for his sheer nerve, his chutzpah. his machismo. After all, who else almost got away with writing his own immunity in to law? We adore his whole "not only am I the man in charge, but I'm the man in charge of the news about the man in charge!" attitude.

And now, we can't keep our eyes off him. Silvio! So handsome! Is that a new haircut? Are you sporting a tan? Have you been on vacation? You look different!

I can't wait for this episode of Extreme Makeovers to air.

January 18, 2004

Okay, Just ONE More Slice...

Pam, who doesn't usually write about herself in the third person, joins nonfamous strangers from an offshore post in Austria. She's binational, dividing her time between two places that are very far away from each other in all kinds of ways. The first, a condo just off 15th on Seattle's Capitol Hill. The second, a government owned housing block in a town she calls, in her crabbier moments, "the Ephrata of Austria."

While in Austria, she consumes an incredible amount of cake. Just this Saturday she had Esterhazy Torte, a 12 layer confection that alternates thin slices of hazelnut cake with sweet cream filling, topped with marbled ganache. And on Sunday, she had two slices of home made Black Forest Cake filled with marinated cherries. Real marinated cherries, none of your candied marichinos, thank you.

She keeps a journal about culture, food, snow, and the other mysteries of life as observed by a dislocated urban lefty at Nerd's Eye View.

January 07, 2004

Viva la lucha!

That's "long live the struggle!" for your gringos. Citizen C and Citizen J--whose names we daren't mention lest the Bush Administration prosecute them!--just got back from Cuba. They sent a whole bunch of great photos, but my favorite is this shot
of Citizen J wearing the American Apology t-shirt he read about on nonfamous. (Note the gorgeous Che on the building in the background!)

If people want to hear more about the trip, maybe we can convince Citizen C to become a frequent contributor.

December 21, 2003

At long last... Australia pictures

Here it is: Australia '03 in 50 picures or less.

And just to recap an amazing year of travel, here are photos of our Europe and Maui trips. Thanks to everyone who helped make our globetrotting possible!

December 15, 2003

Australia in review

I owe everyone an apology for being so slow to post anything here about our trip. Let me start by saying it was, without question or exception, the best vacation in my life. My anxiety at meeting my new family melted within minutes, and our cruise down (and up and down and up and down) the Murray River was as blissfully relaxing a time as I can recall.

This relaxation has been, I think, part of the problem--I returned to all the work that had piled up but was still, mentally, sipping champies with Meg and quite untroubled by the realities of deadlines and timesheets and clients. Eventually, though, the work had to get done and that precluded this.

The other thing I've struggled with is where to start. The beauty of the world's oldest, dryest continent? The many charms of the Smiths of Adelaide and their amazing, hilarious, lovable friends? The comparative advantages of houseboat vacations? The wisdom of the ethos of "death before dishonor and booze before lunch"? The maritime and landlocked glories of Sydney?

I still can't decide, and I'm still a bit stymied by narrative. Oh, and then there's the issue of my Mac, which is so full to the brim with digital stuff (mostly music) that I haven't even been able to fully download my camera yet. That WILL happen this week, and hopefully pictures will help me tell the story.

The most important thing to mention is the great hospitality of David's family, and the unmatched pleasure of meeting them. I had a strong suspicion we would get along, but was afraid to hope I would (let's not mince words) come to love them as quickly as I did. You Smiths are all amazing and hilarious originals, from Molly, to Meg, to Becca. Now I truly know where David gets it. Especially his mischievousness. Best of all, the Smiths and the Porters are equally crazy in their own lovable ways--so no more worrying about the dynamics of the wedding party for me.

At this brief entry, work is already piling up--that doleful sound of the inbox filling as with so many noisy snowflakes. So I know I owe more commentary, but hopefully this is a good start. Better than nothing, at least.

August 28, 2003

Kontua mesedez

So Slate has June Thomas writing dispatches from her trip to the Basqueland. First of all, what is it with Slate and copying my ideas? At least I scooped them on this one, posting my journey through the Euskara-speaking world on FANS back in May. But still, I get the feeling that Michael Kinsley is bugging my cell phone and using my ideas for stories. It's unnerving, and it needs to stop.

I do have more of a point to make, however, than to grouse about Slate's lack of ability to come up with their own damn story ideas (or lack of paying me for the ones they seem to steal from me). I want to take issue with a statement Ms. Thomas made in her first "dispatch" (yeah, they didn't even bother to use a different term than I did in mine). On Monday's post, she said, "The Basque Country smells like Spain—a mixture of wine, sweat, eau de cologne, olive oil, and "black" tobacco. And the locals' food fixation is quite French."

You see, she's right about the smell. Which was fine. Good human smell, really. Although I'd kind of add lavender to that as well. And salt air. But the idea that a food fixation is French, now that I have an issue with. All over Spain, food was extremely important, though nowhere near as much as I found it to be in the Basqueland, that's true. But I have to say that, although, yeah, the French are kind of food obsessed, they go about it very differently than the Basques.

For one thing, I could live on Basque food if I had to. It rivals Italian food for good, homey, lovely, innovative, and interesting morsels. I could never live on French food. I mean, sure, it's good. But would you really want to live on it? All that butter and cream and aspic? The thing about classical French cuisine, which distinguishes it from most of the other ethnic cuisines I love (Italian, Basque, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Oaxacan, and Japanese in that order) is that French cooking is not about appreciating local abundance and living well off what the nearby land and sea have to offer, but about making something rich and oppulent to impress nobility (and using those rich combinations of flavors and textures to hide the less-than-entirely-fresh meats and fish that were raised or caught far from the castles which house the dinner tables those ingredients were destined to grace.)

Now admittedly, there are Basque dishes that are based on using non-local ingredients, most notable salt-cod, but the salting process was never about fancifying anything for the sake of impressing anyone, but for preserving the fish for the long ride home as overfishing near the European contintent made it increasingly more difficult for medieval fisherman to find cod. Salt cod is peasant food. It keeps. It's not about gooping stuff all over something spoiled to pretend it's not, but, like salting and curing hams and bacon and olives, etc. to preserve them for use during less abundant times of year. In fact, the official dish of Viscaya is bacalao al pil-pil, a dish that was invented while the city of Bilboa was under siege during the first Carlist wars and they were running out of food, nearly everything, as a matter of fact, except olive oil and salted cod. The Carlists lost, in the end, and never overran the city, which they expected to take when the food ran low. The good people of Bilboa, for their part, invented one of the most artistic and simple dishes ever created.

The most famous dishes of classical French cuisine, on the other hand, were invented by chefs in the employ of kings and nobles who were tasked with always outdoing the grandiosity of previous dinners or others' dinner parties. Sure, this resulted in plenty of tasty and inventive dishes, many of which are still part of the lexicon of French cookery (and many of which were just too unnerving, too extravagant, or too unpleasant to have survived), but they lack soul, in my opinion. They were created to impress, not nourish. And that, as I see it, is still the essential difference between French and Basque food, and why I have an issue with equating the French conception of food as an object of art and the Basque conception of food as an object of worship.

July 21, 2003

Scandinavian Rhapsody/a cultural quiz

(After my trip to Sweden, Finland and Estonia, June 27-July 11, 2003)

Last Friday I returned from an idyllic, adventuresome, fantastic trip to Sweden and Finland. As many of you know, it is often my custom when abroad to send back emails detailing my picaresque mishaps and successes while beyond our American borders. However, the proliferation of WAP-phones and the SMS culture of Scandinavia, combined with the utter non-online-ness of Lapland, prevented me from communicating in any kind of digital fashion. I resorted to keeping an ana-log in a little pink notebook acquired prior to leaving Seattle. It now contains 80 pages of expense tallies, confused language notes regarding Finnish and Estonian, and a daily narrative. I cannot here transcribe it.

You may have many of your own perceptions about Scandinavia - as I had prior to seeing it for myself. I provide a cultural quiz here drawn from my 14 days in the North as a measure of your conjecture against my experiences.

True/False

1. It is warm enough to enjoy your drinks outside the bar on a Swedish evening.
2. The slowdown of the economy makes it impossible for everyone to have a knife at a restaurant.
3. Girls in white dresses ride the Stockholm subway.
4. The family sauna on the overnight Silja ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki is a positive experience.
5. Barhopping on the Silja ferry's 3 bars is fun.
6. The Finnish language is difficult to master, but easy to imitate.
7. I was immediately identified as an American everywhere I went.
8. I was marked as a member of the reindeer herd in a special ceremony by a Lappish shaman.
9. I am somehow related to everyone in the southern Lappish province of Posio.
10. I saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer meet an untimely end on the Finnish highway.
11. It seems a horrible fate to be a parent in Scandinavia.
12. Muikku are everywhere.

Answers

1. False. But, perhaps, if you have just survived your 29th winter in Stockholm, it feels warm enough at midnight in June to wear a skimpy top and strappy sandals. I was not of this opinion. I made use instead of the thoughtfully-placed little fleece blankets laid over the back of each bistro chair everywhere I went. It was very "Red Cloud" meets "Stylish Swedish Bar." It was all I could do to not make off with one.

2. True, if your Swedish father says so. My first meal in Stockholm, a well-humored Swedish father sat at the table next to me as his toddler son clambered up to sit. The little boy wanted a knife. "Why can't I have a knife?" he asked. He looked around. "We got here too late to get knives," his father said. "They're not handing them out anymore." The little boy thought about this for a minute. "But *they* have knives!" he cried out, gesturing toward the table where my friend and I were sitting and laughing. "Yes, well." The father shrugged his shoulders. "The economic slowdown makes it impossible for everyone to have a knife these days."

3. True. The Stockholm subway is so clean and non-urban feeling (compared to other subways I have had the pleasure of riding) that three-year- olds in immaculate white cotton dresses hop on and off the cars as though in an IKEA commercial of well-ordered cleanliness.

4. False. I *thought* it sounded very nice at first. However, one accidental glimpse at a window of the helm of the ferry offered an undesireable view of a Finnish father in a Speedo scratching his belly with his arm around his son. I quickly axed the "public sauna" idea (also due to my particularly grandmotherly swimsuit - an article of clothing I have never been proud of) and headed off to my cabin for a nap.

5. False. What would you think if a Malaysian woman who introduced herself as "Ring-Ring, but you can call me Candy - I live in Finland" invited you out for a drink, and proceeded to disdain in high profanity all of Finnish culture, while correctly predicting the arrival of the very boisterously drunk young men at 11 to replace the very dourly older drunk men? And then what if the potbellied older man who was pinching your upper arm and asking you to dance was suddenly replaced by a younger paperback bookmaker from Tampere who spoke in broken English, shattered with wayward elbows almost all the glasses on the bar, drained your new drink, and exhaled vomit-scented puffs of warm air on you? And then everyone went upstairs to a discotheque to dance and watch the Finn pass out? That's right, you might have wished you'd purchased the airfare instead. This experience will henceforth be filed under "Funny, But Not Fun."

6. True. The language was very hard; everyone always says it is very hard; even a fool can, in this linguistically enlightened global village, blurt out "it's part of the Finno-Ugric family" when Finnish is mentioned. The TV programs were very hard to understand when I first arrived. However, immersion is a wonderful thing, and by the end of a week and a half I could hold banal conversations with the sweet Finnish grandmothers who fed and housed me on my journey ("The sun is shining," "the sun isn't shining," "not many mosquitoes now," "is the sauna ready?" &c. &c.) I have always had a theory that my ability to roll r's from an early age derives from imitating my mother's parents on summer visits to Upper Michigan. Baby, just roll those r's and look as stern as Sibelius, and they will understand whatever little phrase you try to eke out.

7. False. Finns and Swedes of all ages approached me speaking their respective languages at a rapid-fire pace. I felt like I did not even get a second look of scrutiny. Usually by the time I broke it to them ("I speak English," "ei suomea!") they were halfway through some complicated discussion of restaurant seating with respect to the arrival of the d.j., or a tirade about my shoddy driving somewhere north of Rovaniemi.

8. True. At the family reunion a very tall, lanky, intimidating Finnish man with piercing blue eyes decked out in a Finnish shaman costume came crashing through the birch trees. Someone had tipped me off as the lone American woman. He seized me and asked me my name. I was dumbstruck by his blue, blue eyes, the large amount of fur atop his head, his leather leggings, and the many hunter-related utensils dangling from his leather belt. He took out a large knife and said he would nick my ears "for the herd." (No, I did not know any of this vocabulary in Finnish. Yes, I had an interpreter speaking English in my ear.) He said his knife was too dull, and that he needed to sharpen it. Out came a massive flint and he sharpened the knife in a shower of yellow sparks. He pretended to nick my ears at the top of each, and then took out a small pot of ashes to smear ash on my forehead - I presume to remind next year's antlers to sprout in time for summer.

It turned out this man was yet another cousin who is also the host of Finland's version of "Survivor," staged in Lapland. My friends in Helsinki were extremely impressed by this piece of information. I, of course, did not know him from Adam, although I suspect he will be visiting me in my dreams, knife dangling, for quite some time.

9. True. And they all want to serve me coffee.

10. True. It happened just south of Kuusamo on our way to Kuopio. I had just seen a "Danger: Reindeer Crossing" sign and the traffic was thick by Finnish standards. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a reindeer bounded out of the ditch, followed by a tiny reindeer. The mother made it across the road but her calf was slower. A red Civic hit it head-on and the baby reindeer circumscribed an arc crosswise over the hood, landing on the pavement. The mama looked back and saw what had happened. She crossed the road again. By this time I was shouting and pulling the car over to the shoulder, paranoid for the demise of an extended reindeer clan. The car who hit the calf pulled over; it is a serious fine in Finland to hit a reindeer and you are required by law to log and report the event. Another car pulled over behind it. I pulled back out onto the road to continue south. The calf twitched on the road. It was horrible. I was very careful to look for reindeer until we were out of the northern provinces, not wanting the bad karma of a baby reindeercide.

11. False. With government-guaranteed stipends and long-term maternity and paternity leave, incredible cultural support for having children, the constant public presence of extremely cute, well-behaved children, and quality government-regulated daycare for a rock-bottom $200 per month, scaled progressively to the number of kids you have, combined with the cooperation of extremely game Scandinavian fathers who are very happy to take the child for a bit, or change it, or whatever, and the prospect of having a family suddenly seems far more attractive than the American "well, good luck to you - hope you find a sitter" model.

12. True. The minnowy, bait-like fish are served fried, smoked, steamed... breaded... in cream sauce ... on toast.... in bowls, on plates.... Every time I shouted "no more muikku!" to the universe, another smiling Finnish matron would appear with a freshly fried batch. At first I ate them, heads, fins, bones, and all, clueless barbarian that I am. I soon noticed that everyone else was surgically removing the spine with a knife and the tine of a fork. I tried this. It moderately improved the muikku experience, but the scratchy tail fins remained to tickle my throat.

June 30, 2003

"American Traveler International Apology Shirt"

The American Apology Shirt is an example of the free-speech entrepreneurism that makes this country great! I want one-- and a bargain indeed at $16!

June 06, 2003

Ask and ye shall receive

Well, I can't promise that everyone else gets the same stellar and responsive service that David does, but I do try. Based on his terribly sensible request I have added a new category, lickety-split: "bon voyage/voyeur," and reclassified all the travel-related posts I could find to this new home. It's all about travel, in the real and vicarious senses. Please do travel, and write about it. If we were all half as eloquent as Paulette, the site would not be nonfamous at all. But then what would we do.

By the way, if you do want to try to get David-level service out of me (instead of standard agency-grade "return your email next week" client service), you could start by taking notes on his exceedingly skillful stroking of one of my great vanities: my near-infallible great-restaurant radar. Flattery may not get you everywhere, but it will get you on my good side.

Pete, if you're out there, I hope the "skillful stroking" image really cheers you up in the way that only my conjuring of extravagantly gay images can. If not, I can keep them coming.

Paris recommendations

A friend of mine is travelling to Paris soon, so I thought I'd send him some recommendations. And because I'm going myself in a couple weeks, I didn't want to lose the info. So here it is for posterity, my list of must-dos in Paris.

A marvellous new restaurant in Paris is:

Restaurant Le X
10, Rue Saint Merri
Paris 4e
01 48 87 06 00

Jay and I found it when wandering around the Marais back in May. Jay has a great sense for just stumbling past -- and identifying! -- the coolest places to eat. Tell them we sent you, if you go. :) It's right near the Pompidou centre. Great modern food, and an excellent value. Be sure to try "Le Romantique" platter of desserts.

X is in the Marais district which is my favorite part of Paris (Metro: Hotel de Ville). It has lots of wonderful cafes, bars (of all varieties) and cool stores to wander around.

Another good restaurant in that area is "Au Tibourg" in Rue du Bourg-Tibourg. Excellent tradional French cuisine.

And for brunch, try "Le Pain Quotidien" on Rue du Temple (might be Rue des Archives, not quite sure). You sit at bench-style tables elbow-to-elbow with everyone else, and get a great country breakfast. It's a cool place to get some conversation with locals when you travel alone.

As for sightseeing, these are my recommendations:

* Musee d'Orsay. The best museum in the world. Skip the Louvre in favour of this.
* Don't bother climbing the Eiffel tower. Go to the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. You can climb it for about 20FF (whatever that is in Euros these days) and you get a far better view of Paris ... with the Eiffel Tower included!
* Musee Picasso is also very good if you like Picasso.
* If you get the time, visit Cite du Science et de l'Industrie (at Porte de la Villette, I think). I haven't been there for about 10 years, but at the time it was the best science museum in the world.
* Take a walk to Place des Vosges and have a coffee in a terrace cafe one sunny afternoon
* Just walk around a lot. Paris is a wonderful city for walking and exploring. Walking down the length of the Champs Elysees, through Place Concorde and down to Notre Dame is a favourite of mine.
* If you need a break, go see a movie, but make sure it's marked "(VO)" -- English with subtitles.

By the way, nonfamous really needs a "travel" category.

May 15, 2003

Leaving Madrid, Paulette Style

So, I went back to Madrid for my last night in Spain. This makes sense, right? Since my flight was from Madrid, and sure, Toledo was only an hour away and I had a primo parking spot and a really nice hotel room that I could have kept for an extra night. But I thought to myself, hey, Madrid, yeah, cool city, gazillions of hotel rooms, no problem.

Parking, on the other hand...Not so much.

So, I timed things perfectly. Spent the day in Toledo going to the museums and such that had been closed on Monday, working a bit more on my tan, enjoying the city in general, and then heading back to Madrid at rush hour. Yeah. Well, the good thing about that was in stop and go traffic on the highway, changing lanes and all, I realized that I hadn't stalled once. I'm like total expert stick shift driver. Yeah, I rock in small ways.

So I get to Madrid, start looking for a hotel. Preferably one with parking. That's cheap. And comfortable. Well, I got one out of three.

Actually, genius that I am, I had gotten rid of the map of Madrid I'd had earlier. Which isn't that big a deal. There are signs pointing me toward landmarks, so I can easily get myself toward the Puerta del Sol (kind of Madrid's answer to Times Square) and that sort of thing, but forget trying to find the actual streets for hotels recommended by lousy Fodors, since the map I had been using was the one in the book that I had conveniently ripped out of the book so I could carry it around with me.

Eh, whatever. I find a parking spot on the street and walk into some hostals (which are not hostels, but sort of somewhere between a hotel and a pension) and pensions. Nope, no single rooms available at the first five. Fine, there's a pension on the 6th floor (can anyone say walk-up) in the building where the last hostal was full. I give it a try. Hey, they've got a room. Hey, it's only 11 euros. Cool. I'll take it. Oh, of course no parking. Really? I'm likely to get towed on the street there. Sure, I'll park it at the parking lot you recommend, which is only half a kilometer away. No, I won't give a thought to bringing my now extremely heavy backpack to the pension while my car is parked on the street in front of it. I'll wait until I've parked half a kilometer away to give this some thought.

Half a kilometer and six flights of stairs later, soaking with sweat and generally feeling hot and nasty, I notice the little sign at the entrance to my "Pension y hotel residencial." Hmmm....

Bathroom is busy, so I wash up a little in the sink in my room and change and go out of the evening. I know I should shower, but hey, I'm fine. A little perfume. I mean, I did shower this morning, before spending the day walking up hills in 90 degree weather in Toledo. I'm cool. Or rather, clean enough.

Hey, I'm going to eat at the world's oldest restaurant. And Hemingway's favorite. It's called Botin, right off the Plaza Mayor. Sweet! Perfect way to end the trip. Hemingway and Food all in one package. And that was essentially the theme for the trip, right? Before it became torturing rental cars, that is. Oh, and their specialty is roast suckling pig, which, as it turns out, is one of my favorite things to eat.

Now I know it's cheesy that I'm reading a Hemingway book (The Fifth Column) in his favorite restaurant, but I've gone though all the others I brought with me so I really don't have much choice at this point.

In walk some British folks who are in town for a conference. They are seated at the table next to mine. One of them asks me, somewhat incredulously, if I'm reading Hemingway translated into Spanish. I say that would be silly, since I can't read Spanish. And so begins an evening of hanging out with Brits on my last night in Madrid.

Actually, I'd already ordered my pork and while I was chatting with them, my food came. After a few minutes, the waiter came over and scolded them for keeping my attention. "Her meat is getting cold!" he told them rather sternly.

And it was quite good, really.

So after everyone's eaten, someone gets the idea that since we're in the world's oldest restaurant we should get the oldest Spanish brandy they have. So we get that. Then the oldest sherry. The waiter suggests something else that none of can figure out what it is. The little phrasebook is of no use. Oh sure, we'll take some of that too. It turned out to be a Basque liquor, kind of cherry and anise flavored and not exactly bad.

Having eaten and drunk in a manner that would have made old Earnest proud, we venture out into the Madrid nightlife.

So, like 6am, I'm back at scary residential pension, and ready for a couple of hours of sleep, but some guy is playing his radio really loud and then at like 6.30 they start tearing down the building across the way, brick by brick, with sledgehammers or something. Anyway, it's slow and repetitive and loud. I give up. I'll shower, get some coffee, and walk around the Puerta del Sol for a while before I have to take the rental car back to the airport. Hey, two out of three isn't bad, right?

Yeah, so bathroom is REALLY scary. There's something evolving in the bottom of the shower stall, and that entity apparently has an issue with allowing the water to drain. Oh, and there was actually no way to determine the relative cleanliness of any of the towels in there. Yep. Well, hey, showering is overrated, right? Just ask the French. But at least I went and had really good coffee.

And by the way, a big of fi on Fodors, who had included a little warning in their book that even if you think of yourself as a coffee afficianado, you'll likely find that the coffee in Spain is too strong. They recommend something that sounds like an Americano to make it palatable. Too strong? What? First of all, saying coffee can be too strong is like saying that a rodeo can have too many cowboys. It just doesn't work that way. Second of all, the coffee in Spain is amazing! Outstanding. I'm depresssed by the inferiority of Starbucks now. And the expense. A cafe cortado, the drink I chose to make my own, which is a double espresso with just a dab of steamed milk, generally runs about 50 to 75 cents. Yeah, Spanish coffee...

Anyway, so I manage to return my rental car without having done any visible damage to it, and luckily I had unlimited mileage, which was sort of the equivalent of letting Jason loose at an Indian buffet. I put over 28k kilometers on that thing. Poor Toro. But I didn't crash him into anything, so that's cool.

And I'm back, which is less cool. Got back last night. Tired. Dirty. Jetlagged. Just a bit hungover.

And now, having slogged through 848 unread email messages at work, I'm about ready to call it a day. My adventure over, my laundry duty just beginning. But I'm primed to take a few whacks at recreated Spanish dishes to go with all the Spanish wine I brought back.

May 12, 2003

Final dispatch, in the world's oldest giftshop

Otherwise known as Toledo. Actually, it's gorgeous here, all windy roads and old stone built on a hill and when cars pass you have to squish yourself into a doorway to not get smushed on their front bumper, or sideview mirror. And you thought it was ridiculous seeing Hummers try to park in compact parking spots? But there are more shops selling damascene and mallorca pearls than there are drive-through coffee shops in Seattle. But the town os gorgeous, it's sunny and warm, my hotel is so cool (and amazingly still only 60 euros a night, though the most expensive one I've stayed in by far) with this elaborate medieval courtyard with fountains and gardens and such, and I might buy a few trinkets, because really other than wine, Ihaven't bought much here that I could bring back in any way other than as stored fat.

Actually, that's not entirely true. I bought shoes. Sandals, actually, and I'm in love with them. They're gorgeous spanish leather embroidered with a floral pattern. If the weather in Seattle isn't warm when I get back, I'm selling my condo and moving to Southern California so I can wear them all the time. You think I'm kidding! And I bought a few clothes, not much, a couple of shirts that were really cute and I can't wait to wear.

Went to Bilbao yesterday. The city was ok, but the Guggenheim! I have a new-found respect for Frank Gehry. Whereas the EMP is so over the top with the colors and the textures, at best a novelty act, this is just the titanium plating, and blond wood or polished concrete flooring, with an emphasis on creating interesting and gorgeous spaces. I took pictures of the museum,because it really was breathtaking.

And they had a whole room of little Calder mobiles that were hung and lit so that they made gorgeous shadows. I love his stuff, because it's all about reducing art down to its most essentially elements, and making the lines the story. They also had an interesting exhibit of 20th century art from Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons, with that really cool sculture of a blue metallic dog that looks like it's made from a balloon. It was a great show, but really, the museum was gorgeous. I have some new hope that the library he is designing for Princeton U. won't be hideous. Maybe Gehry was just making fun of what's his name's ego in building a museum dedicated to his own musical taste? That's not the first time that's occurred to me.

Oh, and I finally got the hang of driving! It turns out, I should NOT start out with the clutch all the way down! Makes all the difference. I'm an expert now! Only stalled once yesterday, on a really steep hill in Toledo in one of those windy roads, when people were standing blocking the road talking and I had no choice but to stop. But I didn't roll back and crash into anything, so I feel like a rock star. I even had to do the stop and go traffic and changing lanes in it through Madrid yesterday and didn't stall. Watch, now I've jinxed mysefl and will be all stalling everywhere tomorrow going back to Madrid.

So I probably won't post again before I leave Wednesday morning, though I will try to relate at least one or two amusing anecdotes, include the missing my flight story, when I get back.

May 10, 2003

Dispatch 4, eating my way through San Sebastian

OK, first off, I'll apologize if anyone is getting tired of my constant talking (yeah, you all thought you could get rid of me for a few weeks--fat chance!), but I'm kind of getting into this travel journal thing.

So, since I've gotten to San Sebastian I've done very little other than eat, and walk to places to eat, and drink, and walk to places to drink. Today, I drove somewhere to eat.

The amazing thing, though, is that my clothes still fit. Let's hope this keeps up, but with the amount of food I've put away in the last four days (not to mention sidra, tzakolis--literally ¨"green wine" a local product not unlike a light, fruity prosecco) I should be looking like a Macy's Day Parade balloon. But my jeans actually seem a little loose. It would appear to be some weird perversion of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where I eat plenty of loaves and fishes, and yet there is no more of me than before. Very odd.

.

So anyway, today I drove thirty minutes out of San Sebastian to eat at a place called Casa Julian in a small town named Tolosa. This was thanks to my brother and his friend (thanks Terry) because I would never have known about this little hole in the wall in a nondescript little town nowhere near anything I wanted to see. And I considered not going because, well, frankly because I was afraid of abject failure trying to get the car up the steep ramp in the parking garage here. But I decided to be brave, and anyway, I also wanted to go to Hondarribia, a little town on the coast right at the French border that is supposed to be really lovely.

Well, I am so glad I braved the whole thing. I got to Tolosa around 11.30, but most restaurants don't open until 13.30 for lunch (like France, they work on military time over here), so I had some time to kill, and decided I would check out the town. Well, Saturdays it would appear that Tolosa is a big old farmers' market. I mean, everything that could remotely be considered a square, a plaza, or just a really wide sidewalk is filled with people selling--well, anything you can eat or drink. There was a guy selling wine in those big plastic water cooler containers (you know, the ones you turn upside down), 4 euros for 5 liters. Unfortunately there was no way it was going to make it into my carryon, otherwise, you know I would have bought some. And it was actually pretty decent.

Well, I bought a bag of shelled fava beans from an old lady, who spoke some French (this close to the border, most people speak French, which is another story, one I'll get to eventually) and who convinced me to buy some of the honey that her husband makes. She's afraid of the bees. So, the thing is, which fresh spring favas you need cheese. Traditionally, at least among Italians, it's a young pecorino, or sheep cheese. So I told her I wanted cheese to go with it, and she said that was a great idea and took me to meet her friend who makes cheeses. I bought two. One a very light sheep cheese, very soft and fresh and almost like what fresh mozzarella would be if it were made with sheep milk. The other is a goat cheese, a little firmer and more aged, very complex and tasty. For good measure, I decided I should also buy some sausage, because I was seeing a picnic come of all this, and so she took me to meet the sausage maker at his stand. He's a cousin of hers, apparently, and she told me she liked this one in particular that's like a soft salami with a lot of hot paprika in it. So that was cool. If only I could bring this stuff back to the states with me. But it will do for road food over the next few days.

Anyway, time to eat. I find Casa Julian, which you enter through the storeroom. And then you basically eat in the kitchen, because there isn't really a kitchen. Just a fireplace in the dining room with a wood fire and a grill rack, where Julian cooks the steaks (chulettas). There is only one cut, and you don't get to choose how you want it done. Fortunately, Julian seems to know that not unlike putting fancy French sauces on fresh, quality ingredients, it's an unpardonable food crime to overcook a really good steak. So he takes your order, which basically consists of giving your assent to him making your steak and deciding if you want a salad and what to drink. There are roasted piquillo peppers listed on the menu, for an additional price, but Julian insists you have them, so it's sort of moot. "Is not optional, the peppers" he said. So you "order" and he goes and cuts your piece of meat, and brings it into the dining room and throws it on the grill rack, and then takes a big handful of coarse salt, the only seasoning, and covers it with that. He throws a bunch of peppers on the fire too.

When the peppers are ready, he peels them, douses them with a bit of olive oil, and brings them to your table. When the steak is ready, he wipes off the salt, and carries it across the dining room table on one of those long fork things for grilling, the name of which is escaping me at the moment, and plops it on your plate. You take a bit of pepper, which is good and hot and a little spicy and smoky tasting, with each bite of steak. It was heavenly. Hey, if you're only going to do one thing, do it really well. You also get a loaf of bread, which is good. Crusty outside, moist and doughy, with a weird hint of corn flake taste to it, but with the steak and pepper drippings, it was outstanding.

And I had wine. Only a half bottle because I was driving. But up there with overcooking steaks and drowning good food in rich French sauces, eating a good steak without red wine is another food crime I will never commit.

But I did learn a valuable lesson. Susan once told me that there was a window between half a bottle and 3/4 of one in which you are at your best driving a stick shift. And by God she was right. I managed to unparallel park (or is that parallel unpark?), do a K-turn, drive through town, get onto the highway, go through San Sebastian, get back on the highway, drive into Hondarribia, and parallel park again, all without stalling, or stripping the gears, or even jerking the car at all. So, I guess the lesson to be learned here is that so long as I stay just shy of tipsy, I can drive! Yeah, I rock in minor ways.

Hondarribia is so pretty. I took lots of pictures. I want to live there. It's on the ocean. It's dramatic. Has a nice beach and jetties where people fish for dorado. A view of France and the mountains. And cliffs. And the town itself is really pretty.

So I spent a few hours walking along the beach and such, and then decided rather than getting bck on the highway, to take the beach road back toward San Sebastian, which rises higher and higher onto these cliffs overlooking the ocean. I stopped in a few places and took pictures, and at one, pulled off to the side and had my little snack of some of the favas and cheese, and just took in the quiet and prettiness. Today was a good day.

Yesterday was a good eating day. I went to Arzak, which is considered the top restaurant in Spain (well, I guess it's tied with El Bulli in the south, but I won't have time to get there), and it was amazing. I told the waitress I couldn't decide between the lamb and the calamari steak (which was grilled and dusted with orange zest and cocoa powder--lord almight!) and she said I could have a half portion of each. Then she recommend I do the same with the appetizers and desserts.

Ok, so here is where it all gets obscene. Except that at least I had a three kilometer walk each way to get to and from the restaurant to work off some of this food. And I ordered a bottle of one of my favorite wines, a Marques de Murrietta Reserva, because, for one thing, this was a bottle that in the states would be much more expensive in a restaurant (not 18 euros for sure!) and because when you're going to have food that good, you really do need good wine to go with it, right?

So, they brought out five ameuses geules. Oh yeah. The first came on a toothpick and they handed it to me. It was a pineapple with a shrimp ceviche on top. Then there was a salmon tarte with red onion and good vinegar on a piece of potato. A tiny taro cake with a piece of seared foie gras and a black olive puree topped with a little bit of pink grapefruit. A pickled herring wrapped around a strawberry (and trust me, it was good) and a tiny cup of an onion soup, pureed, with an idiazabal cheese crisp on top.

Then they brought appetizer one. A crayfish salad in rioja and soy viniagrette on blue potatoes with watercress. That was really good, but hte next was heavenly. Little triangles of foie gras, yogurt and canteloupe puree wrapped in crepes. Sweet Jesus! The flavor was unimaginably good. Just truly, truly outstanding.

Then the calamari steak, which was actually weirdly constructed into something that kind of looks like a house that Rem Koolhaas designed in the south of france. There was a tiny bit of a savory orange marmalade on the side, but the cocoa powder and orange zest on the calarmari where incredible.

Next, the lamb, grilled in a curry powder and idiazabal cheese crust. Easily the best lamb I've ever tasted. And the wine was perfect with all of these things.

Dessert the first was a "hamburger" of chocolate ganache between two crispy buns of really good puff pastry. The second, much better than the first, was an apple and black olive tarte tatin. Wow! And then they brought out mango gelato, in a tiny cup, just a taste, a blast of mango creamy coldness.

So that was my meal, and it was truly outstanding. Though I do have to say that for pure enjoyment, today's steak and the kokotxa from the other day (which turns out to be salt cod throats) top the list for best meals. But I have had quite a few really good fried sardines here too.

Good thing I'm leaving town tomorrow. I'm pretty sure I've eaten enough for a month.

Love to all. Can't wait to see you Thursday!

May 08, 2003

Dispatch 3, The Short, Unhappy Life of Toro the Opel

Well, since leaving Madrid, I just take the opportunity when I happen upon an Internet cafe, because, well, you never know when I'll find another.

Excuse the awful typos in yesterday's post. That keyboard was weirder than most, not just oddly placed letters, but sticky keys and I was trying to type too fast.

Anyhoo, so I might as well tell you the sad saga of my rental car, a cute little Opel Corsa--a very new car but without air conditioning or a radio. The former doesn't really matter, since it's been fairly cool and overcast or raining since I left Madrid. The latter might be both a blessing and a curse. No radio means fewer distractions, and it's probably a really good thing that I pay as much attention to the driving, as I'm going largely without benefit of a map and still not that good at the whole driving thing. On the other hand, no radio leaves me a lot of time to think. And I mean a lot. Which is probably dangerous. When I picked up Toro, he had a mere 6000 kilometers on the odometer. I've managed to add another 1200 to that. Poor thing.

But there is a reason I've named him so. You see, in bullfighting, the poor bull is the object of a tragedy. He's tested, to see how brave he is, then basically pnished into being controlled before being killed. When he rushed the horses with the picadors atop them, he's stabbed by a 4cm blade at the end of a long stick. Then, when that's finally over, the bandilleros get their turn. They each take 2 banderillas, long frou-frou looking affairs with a pic at the end. They run at hte bull and stick him in the back near the neck. Three times this happens, and then out comes the matador with the muleta (the red cape thing the bull rushes) where he is finally slain with the steel. If he's lucky.More often that not, the matador either can't get the blade in and has to do it several times, or he gets it in but it doesn't kill the bull, who then is rushed by the banderillos with pink capes who try to disorient himuntil he collapses, and then, if necessary, one of them finishes him off with a stab to the artery in his neck.

Now imagine my poor car going through this. He's been stalled more times than I can remember at this point. I've learned first hand why people who drive stick shifts seem to prefer rolling stops to actual ones, and I think I now get what it means to strip the gears. I've had a couple (ok more than a couple) of times where at 100km an hour I could't get the damn thing into a gear, on a hill, going round a sharp curve. And he's made some really painful sounds along the way, but he keeps coming back for more.

And after yesterday, I'm feeling pretty lucky about that. You see, I literally added insult to injury. After sending Jay my post, I went outside but it was really cold, so I decided to get my sweater from the car, which,believe it or not, I had successfully parallel parked in downtown Pamplona. Except.

You guessed it. No car. Not there.

Now, I'll digress for a moment and say that I find it interesting how easy it's been to meet people on this trip. Really from the first plane ride, in all the airports, and generally along the way, it's been remarkably easy to strike up conversations with people. I wonder if t's reading too much into the situations, or being too much a romantic to think that people who put themselves on journeys are inevitably nervous and excited by the whole thing, and so want or need to share something of it with others who they perceive as going through something similar.

And it is nerve wracking and exciting. I mean, as amazing a time as I've been having, I've had to repeat to myself more than a few times the oldadage about whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And I guess I'm beginning to believe that it's true, because if ever there was a time when I would have expected me to fall apart, it would be standing in the rain in Pamplona, no map, unable to speak the language, with my car missing.

Actually, the police were very nice. I flagged down the first car I saw, and tried to explain to them "la coche, no esta aqui" which seemed to get the point across. They followed me to where it had been, pointed to the orange sticker on the ground indicating that it had been towed, and then proceeded to explain that the little weird machine at the end of the block was where I needed to pay for parking nad then put the ticket in the dashboard. Oops.

So they gave me a ride to where the car had been taken, and it cost me 100 euros to get it back. I harbored some vain hope that the police would explain that I was just a dumb American and shouldn't have to pay the whole fine, but they just asked me if I watched how we got there so I could ge back to downtown. Oops again.

Well, hey, it was something to make me stronger, I suppose, and, well, I got to ride in a police car. They were nice enough to let me ride shotgun, er, in the front seat, so I wouldn't feel like a criminal. And I've no doubt they least had a good story to share over donuts and amazing Spanish coffee (which is probably even good in offices and precinct houses here) later on.

So I collected my car, drove back to downtown Pamplona, in rush hour no less, and parked again, this time paying for my parking spot, apparently the right way, and heading to the Cafe Iruna for a drink.

Yep. Hey, I told you there would be misadventures to share.

But today I am in San Sebastian, which is really pretty. And on the ocean. And I had an exceptional lunch. I've finished the weirdly obsessive Hemingway pilgrimage for this trip and am embarking on the eating portion of the trip. So today, one of the top traditional Basque restaurants in town. Yummers! Really. I mean, the thing is that as much as I love cooking and eating, I'm rarely truly impressed. I always go into a restaurant and want to be wowed. I want to say Great God in Heaven, I had no idea it could be this good. And that rarely happens. I thought that the other day with the foie and pina colada dish. I can only remember one or two experiences of that in the last year in Seattle (For those interested, it was Brasa's rioja vinegar quail over chocolate polenta--yeah,chocolate polenta--and the golden beet salad at Harvest Vine).

Well, I wanted to shout that from the rafters today at Bodegan Alejandro. The place is cute,vaguely rustic, and very homey, with brownand green tile halfway up the wall, and then yellow painted walls above that, square, heavy wooden tables with no table cloths. Really good bread. A bottle of sidra, the local specialty (served in a wine bottle like French cidre) was 4 euros. Yeah! And it was good. Tart and fermenty tasting, but really nice. And the food. Amuese geule was a cream of leak soup, served in a little egg cup. Tasty. Did I mention the bread was good. So was the appetizer. White asparagus broiled with queso Roncal and served with a poached egg. Yeah. Good.

The entree, though. Yeah. Wait, I need a minute. You guessed it. More salt cod. I love that stuff. Anyway, this was called something like kokotxa. It´s basically what happens whenyou realize that shrimp scampi could be made heavenly by substituting salt cod for the shrimp and then adding a lot more butter and wine so it's all in a soup kind of thing wiht tuny potatoes. And really good bread to sop it up.

I wouldnt have had dessert because I'm not big on wasting calories on sweets, and trust me, I need to think about this with the eating regimen that's ahead of me for the next few days, but it was included in the price of the meal (oh, yeah, the whole thing, all three course, is $25). So I asked the waiter to just tell me which was the best one. He said the pain perdu. Oh yeah. It was good. It was Great God in Heaven, who knew dessert could be this good good. Imagine if you will, a cross between bread pudding made with really good bread and a creme brulee and you've got this dessert. Oh, and thenfor good measure, top it with some lemon gelato.

Yeah, I've got to keep walking. I could walk to Italy at this point and would still not work off all those calories. But they were so worth it.

And did I mention the other thing I discovered in Madrid which might well cause my downfall one of these days--fried sardines. You know, that's what's wrong with America. No fried sardines. You know, even bad fried sardines, ones that have been sitting around all day and are reheated in the microwave when you order them, are really good. Why don't we eat them like crazy in the states? How am I going to return to a sardine-less existence?

Ok. Gotta run. Places to go. Things to see. Well, really just lunch to work off.

Love to you all.

May 07, 2003

Dispatch the 2nd, El Pais Vasco

Some technical glitch, which I'm choosing to blame on the ETA (Basque country's answer to the IRA) has left me completely unpable to access the authors' portion of nonfamous, so big thanks to Jay for posting this in my stead.

So, I'm in Pamplona. You know, the place with the running of the bulls and all that? Well, it's kind of cool. I mean, I came here for two reasons, right? Food and Hemingway. So I'm in exactly the right place for that. Except, I gotta say, Pamplona, as pretty as it is, sort of leaves me cold. The monastery where I am staying, on the other hand, is quite cool. And it's a two mile drive up a mountain to get there overlooking Navarra and the Irati river.

Now the Irati excites me. I was actually fairly thrilled to spend the morning walking around Saguesa, a town straddling the river that I am almost certain was where Hemingway had n mind when he wrote the scenes where Bill and Jake stay before heading off to the feria in Pamplona, where they fish the Irati and have the last moments of peace before Brett and Mike et al show up and begin turning the whole thing into a mess of drama and tensions. That was always my favorite part of the book, the one I came to this part of the world for, and recent history being what it has been, I guess it's no real surprise that I would connect to that part of the story, is it?

And the views from my monastery are amazing. Really, truly incredible, even though it's been raining since I got here. I've taken a ton of pictures. Alas, all the stunning photos I've taken since leaving Madrid are of Navarra and La Rioja (where, incidentally, I've developed quite the stock of good, cheap wine that is going to be more than a chore to fit in my carryon getting home). Aragon, which I drove through on Monday, was outstandingly beautiful. Really, truly, dramatic lanscape, and I wish I'd taken pictures. Whereas Navarra is green and blue and lush, Aragon is all reds and golds. And mountains. Why, don't I have any pictures of this splendor you ask? Well, there are a number of reasons.

It would appear that even Paulette's sense of adventure has its limits. I'd like to say that it had something to do with common sense or a self-preservation kicking in, but we all know that's unlikely to have been more than a small portion of it. No, there really weren't a whole lot of good places to stop and take photos, for one thing. The roads were largely two lane affairs on winding switchbacks up and down the sides of mountains, and I had some concern that pulling over, despite the lack of regular traffic, was likely to get me killed. And I had a destination in mind, which I was all that much more inclined to reach owing to the growing call of nature. And I was loathe to stop in any of the small towns I passed along the way because they all had this vaguely sinister, deserted look that reminded me of the towns where the man with no name would get himself into problems in Clint Eastwood movies. And I was in a bad mood, which admittedly was most of it.

I had taken a detour through Aragon rather than heading straight for Pamplona because my guidebook had recommended a town called Cuenca as a good day trip from Madrid to see the famed "hanging" houses in the mountain and the Moorish influence that persists to this day. Yeah, well, a pox on Fodors is what I have to say. For one thing, 100 miles into the middle of nowhere is not a day trip. For another, unless the Moors invented tagging, car stripping, and urban blight in general, I'm failing to see where this influence persists. The best thing I can say about Cuenca is that it's a lot like North Philadelphia but with a bullfighting ring. And really, I'm only trying really hard to look for the silver lining by mentioning the ring.

Needless to say, I didn't get out of the car, as I didn't want the same fate to befall it that seemed to have most of the cars that dared park on the streets. So it was that I was driving through the most beautiful country I've ever seen, appreciating it as it whizzed by knowing that by the time I reached Zaragoza, the next major town, I would have been more than 6 hours without food, water, or a bathroom, and I kind of wanted all three, badly.

Zaragoza doesn't win many points either, but it afforded me cheap lodging, cheap food, and a bathroom when I really needed them. And I got to practice driving a stick shift, which, if you want to put a fine point on it, I'm not getting a whole lot better at. But I had the best possible chance to improve in Zaragoza. Imagine the scene. Paulette, tired, pissed, wanting to, hungry, in need of a drink, in the rain, during rush hour, at night (oh, and in case everyone didn't already know, I'm terrified to drive at night in the rain in an automatic when I actually know the territory--it's a long story), with no map of the city, looking for a hotel, any hotel, and barely able to communicate with anyone so asking for directions on the street would be largel fruitless. You get the picture.

Things improved upon my leaving Aragon though. La Rioja is gorgeous, and there are bodegas all around (which here are wineries, and not overpriced corner convenience stores), and wine tastings are free, the bottles of wine averaging between $2 and $5. Yeah. So I saw this one castle way up top of a hill and decided my sense of adventure had kicked back in, so I followed the road up to it, where I found the prettiest little town (Villamayor, which I took a ton of photos of) and a winery with a restaurant, where I decided to have a late lunch.

And enter the dawning of new Basque cuisine. Oh. My. God. It. Was. So. Good.

First of all, the dining room was designed so that one side looked down the hill onto the valley, the other up to the town. And the wine was good. really good. The food. Oh yeah. So they brought out the amuese geule, a potato croquette and a shotglass of a rich mushroom consomme. Tasters. Then my soup, a fish soup not unlike bouillabaisse that tasted just enough of saffron and tomato and had a touch of cream to it. Then my entree. Oh lordypants. It was that good. Duck liver (not foie gras, just foie) grilled in a reduced beef broth with two sauces. One was on the of the cold foamed sauces the chefs of this region are known for. It was a foamed pina colada. And trust me, it worked. The other was a tiny flan with a hint of rosewater flavoring. Yeah. It was good. This is the whole reason I'm obsessed with food, why I want to be a chef. Who woulda thought? And then coffee, which is so good everywhere in this country and so cheap. Another pox, this one at overpriced, weak Starbucks coffee.

So I got to my monastery last night, took some photos of the view, and didn?t want much for dinner, but I did want a little something and some wine. I ordered the house wine, which, since it was priced at 3 euros, I assumed was a glass. No, it was a bottle. And I had asparagus stuffed with spinach and shrimp, one of the appetizers, which I would have loved if it hadn't been in a buerre blanc. They have such nice fresh asparagus, the white stuff, here that smothering it in French sauces designed to hide the taste of food past its prime seems a sin to me. But the 3 euro bottle of wine was pretty good. I wound up spending several hours at the table having a conversation, almost entirely in Spanish, with a middle-aged bar owner from Andulicia named Angel and the 23 year old waiter, Jose, who is from Sevilla. Hey, we've all got an invitation to visit Angel sometime. Between the three of us we finished three bottles of 3 euro wine. And my Spanish is improving. Glad I didn't waste hundred of dollars on a course to learn the language when all I really needed was get tipsy with some Spaniards.

Yeah, so I'm now at the point where I can understand about half of what people say to me in Spanish and can respond to maybe a third of that. Which is a big improvement. And I've learned that starting off a conversation by saying that I only speak a little Spanish usually gets people to talk a little slower.

I'm almost up on my hour here at the Internet cafe, so I will have to wait until next time to write about my last night in Madrid, having beer with a Portuguese fado composer who couldnt speak English but could speak Spanish and understand French. And the second bullfight I went to. Which was really amazing. And why I'm now calling my rental car Toro.

Love to you all. Can't wait to meet Dozer.

Hasta la vista.

May 04, 2003

Dispatch the first from espana

Ok, first of all. I'm in a bloody foreign country (I mean that it in the British way, not the literal one) and yet I´m the only one to post to this site since I last posted like a year ago. Y'all are a bunch of slackers!

That said, hey from Madrid. I hate postcards, so consider this a mass one. Wish you were here. Actually, I do. And then we would stay. Whoever said this was an ugly city (you know you are) was smoking crack (and you should really give that up) because it´s anything but. Actually, it´s much prettier than Paris in its own way. Much less of that fussy ornate architecture, more interesting and, well, Spanish style buildings. It´s more beautiful in the way that New York is beautiful, except, again, with Spanish style. And the blue and white tile thing that´s all over the place, a holdover from Moorish times, is really working for me.

So, in case anyone was wondering, I did get here. Despite Pete´s valiant efforts at an hour no one should ask their friends to see, I missed my plane. What at that point ensued actually makes a good story, but you need the dialog (which I wrote down before I forgot it), and I'll post it sooner or later here. But suffice it to say I made it, eventually, and checked into my hotel, which has a glorious Ballard-style Silkwood shower, so I washed off way too many airports and hours in airplanes, (Oh, and Dana would approve of the hotel room. You can close the wooden shutters and it's completely pitch black. You can't begin to tell if it's day or night) and set out to explore, determined to get myself onto the whole Madrid time zone quickly.

Unfortunately, since the average Madrileno apparently considers three am or later to be an appropriate bedtime, I didn´t quite make it. But I came within an hour or so of it.

So far the two best experiences have been the flamenco bar and the bullfight. The flamenco bar was not the sort place where they have dancers and musicians (I did that the following night and it was cool, but expensive and less of an experience), but a bar that happens to attract a flamenco-loving crowd. The place I went, La Solea, is two rooms, one kind of a normal square room and the other a long narrow one. Both are lined with wooden benches and the occasional small table. There is the ubiquitous blue and white tile on the walls, and cheap wine (two glasses and the bill came to 1.50 euros). Anyway, so a young guy is playing guitar in the back room, and men in the bar are taking turns singing while other people clap along and occasionally shout "ole!" The place was packed, and the music was amazing.

The bullfight was perfect. I had intended to go Sunday, but Friday I was walking after deciding not to stand in the half mile long line to get into the Prado, and I happened upon the Plaza des Toros. Which is gorgeous. Really, truly gorgeous. The prettiest arena I can imagine. Anyway, it being the 2nd of May it was the opening day of the Feria de San Isidro, and the bullfight was sold out, but I bought a ticket from scalper for $5. Nosebleeds to be sure, but that was what Hemingway recommended for the first one. (Yeah, I admit it. I´ve been reading Death in the Afternoon in preparation, and I´m glad I did.) Actually, the whole thing was exactly how Hemingway said your first one should be. A hot, sunny day in May. He said go to your first one in Madrid. And have an afficianado there to let you know if it´s a good fight, and if it´s not, if its a malo toro or a malo matador. So this old guy, who reminded me a bit of my grandpa, was smoking a cigar, was in the seat next to me and decided to start explaining to me, in Spanish, what was going on. My Spanish being next to nonexistent this was something of a challenge, but with the help of hand gestures, pointing, facial expressions, and my little phrase book´s dictionary (hey, thanks Peter!) we managed to have a conversation, more or less, about the whole thing.

So my impression of bullfighting. Well, part of the reason Hemingway recommended sitting up in the cheap seats was so that you could take in the whole thing without being too close to the brutality. That makes sense. I´m actually still toying with the idea of going to tonight´s fight and trying to sit closer. I have to say, I was really moved by the whole thing. It´s sort of a strange thing somehow like opera and rodeo at the same time (and we all know Paulette loves her opera). It´s not so much a sport. We all know the bull is going to lose, though there is also room for the matador or the banderillos to get gored as well. Nor is it a spectacle like a gladiator contest. The bull isn´t an object of ridicule. I'm not sure of the best way to describe it. It's about death and man's desire to try to control something larger than himself. A good bullfight is one in which the bull dies bravely and the bullfighter kills him quickly and neatly after bringing him under his control. It's actually very poignant, and the people take it seriously. As the matador is about to kill the bull, the entire stadium becomes very quiet. There are no waves or announcements. Nothing to distract from what's going on in the ring. Oh, and the place was completely full.

There were six bulls, two bullfighters, three bulls apiece. If a bullfighter is gored, the other one kills his bulls. The man next to me explained that the older of the two (who was born in 1978--God do I feel old) is one of the best matadors today. The other one is more up and coming, but he was the better fighter of the two, the only one to get an ear cut off the bull. I won't go into the progression of the fight just yet, but it's essentially broken into three phases: testing the bull, controlling the bull, and killing the bull. There are a lot of people involved in each fight. In addition to the matador, there are several bandilleros, who wave pink capes to test the bull, and two picadors, who ride blindfolded horses and use long sticks to subdue the bull. I can see why Hemingway, a man so fascinated by death and man's need to exert control over it, would have been so drawn to the corrida. I have a feeling I'll write about it, hopefully more eloquently and at greater length, someday.

Tomorrow I pick up my rental car. Everyone keep your fingers crossed that my ability to drive a stick shift outweighs my ability to speak Spanish.

March 23, 2003

We're home!

Well, the trip back was uneventful. It was a great trip, but it is really wonderful to be home.

I wanted to get photos posted before Miss Brooks got all upset... they are here, and I'll add some more musings on the trip in the next several days and do some link annotation as well.

Also, apparently there was some trouble with the link to "Tompkins Abroad" I sent out, but it is up and running here.

March 19, 2003

Paris in the springtime

So I'm in London, meeting up with my friend Jackie this afternoon for some museum-going followed by dinner and the Meeting of the Significant Others, but right this minute my leg hurts, I'm sweating under way more jacket than I really needed to bring today, and in sum I am just not feeling like a terribly adventuresome tourist this morning. So I decided to stop and catch up on my electronic life.

I should begin this by mentioning that as excited as I was to rendezvous with David in Paris for Phase II of the "Jay Porter International Gimp of Leisure European Tour 2003," I could easily have stayed in Moscow another week. A great city, a great trip, and (as I have long kown) such wonderful and amazing family. I was so sad to say goodbye to Rick and Lisa and have Lisa and Pavel drive me to Sheremetyevo. Once there, I faced an entirely chaotic check-in area and a long line at Passportne Kontrola-where my wish to stay in Moscow was almost granted!

The woman (who bore an alarming resemblance to Bert from Sesame Street fame) in the kiosk looked at me, then looked at my passport photo. About 100 times. Then she called over another officer. More comparison. I am commanded (I finally figured out) to turn in profile. None of this satisfies them. I should point out that although the passport photo shows me in my Dr. Evil shaved head phase, it's still a pretty good resmeblance-only two years old, unlike the aged photos of many people I know. Anyway, they call over a Russian Army officer, with what I can only assume was a Kalahnikov in tow, and parley with him for a moment. He looks at me, they talk some more, he inspects my passport thoroughly, and then walks off. Bert-woman holds up her index finger in the universal signal for, wait a minute. I'm now completely freaked out. Two more minutes pass, bringing my time at the kiosk to easily seven minutes. The enture queue is now scrutinizing the perspiring American in leg brace and with cane who is, by all appearances, trying to travel with forged papers. I'm standing there, wondering what the problem could be, when Bertevna miraculously just waves me on through. I look sheepishly for Kommandant Kalashnikov but it's clear that she's decided I can go. The though passes through my mind that my Russian hosts might just pick every 10th American for a little sport harrassment.

Anyway, my Aeroflot to Paris was lovely-again, a great meal, a good seat, and nobody next to me. Landing at Charles de Gaulle, just as when I arrived in Moscow, the Russians on board broke out in applause. I cannot overstate how disturbing this is, as if they all knew how tenuous our in-flight survival had been-as if there had been an all-Russian announcement mid-flight: "This is your captain speaking. Please do not scare the American in seat 26D, but we forgot to fill up the plane and we're going to run out of gas any minute. This is our lot in life as Russians. The flight attendants will now bring you vodka. Thank you for flying Aeroflot!"

Anyway, I cleared immigration and got my bag without incident. Given my leg, the vagaries of getting to Paris, and the romance of arriving together, David felt strongly that I should just wait for him at the airport-which was quite sensible. I arrived a little before 3, and he was due in just after 6 from Basel. But his plane kept getting delayed, 5 minutes at a time, and gate information was never available. So I waited. By 6:20, I was a little freaked out-like they didn't really know where it was, or something. Perhaps Air France was secretly as iffy as Aeroflot? Anyway, when the gate information did appear, it was "1"-which looked a lot more like a terminal than a gate to me. In one of those errors one could only make after obsessing about something for too long, I decided that he was arriving at Terminal 1, not Terminal 2 where I had been waiting. So I jumped on the next shuttle for Terminal 1. Arriving at Terminal 1, where no Air France arrivals were in evidence, I realized my own stupidity. So I hastily called David's phone and left voicemail apprising him of the depths of my ignorance of the ways of Roissy Aerogare Charles de Gaulle. Then I immediately caught the wrong shuttle, prolonging my journey a good 10 minutes, requiring a hasty change to a terribly crowded tram, and generally frustrating myself to an astouding degree. I finally arrived back at Terminal 2, redfaced and sweaty, to see David calmly waiting for me. Being the prince that he is, he didn't even laugh at me. Well, maybe one chuckle, well earned.

As I see my Internet time dwindling on a handly little count-down bar, I realize that I should really just compress the whole stay in Paris into a single impressionistic sketch. The colors are sky blue, wine red, and the amazing range of slates and greens and creams that is the inimitable architecture of Paris. Every meal was amazing. Our first night David took me to his favorite place, just blocks from our charming hotel-I kept wanting to go back! Our last night I instinctively recognized that a little spot I passed by coming back from the Centre Pomidou would be great-and it is now tied for the title of "favorite restaurant in Paris." Of course Paris is every bit as romantic as promised, and David and I had a wonderful time. We did the Orsay and the Picasso museum and I caught the truly stunning Philippe Starck retrospective at the Pompidou. (Link to come, I promise!)

Lisa and Rick will understand what I mean when I say that I really missed Pavel in Paris! Having a full-time driver will REALLY spoil you! (Right Miss Welch?) The Metro is great, blah blah blah, but it is a huge pain in the ass with a bum knee-so many little flights of stairs, with hurried Parisians buffeting me on all sides. And I emerged with a strong opinion that children should not be allowed on the Eiffel Tower. Getting around without my leg brace is nice and all, but it offered visible evidence that I was not in full working order; one might assume that a cane would convey the same message, but no. About 20 kids almost knocked me over, and one bumped into my leg with such gleeful abandon that I was tempted to lobb his yipping American ass over the side. (David is only too happy to hear me speak ill of children, as he tends to hear the phrase "well-behaved child" as an absolute oxymoron.) I did learn to do the city busses pretty well-and they have the added benefit of showing you the sights. I probably could have saved 20 Euro and not done the silly tour bus. When I go back, I look forward to walking Paris just as thoroughly as I did Rome.

Oh, and just as dicky as my knee is my French. As with my Italian in Rome, I can speak fairly well if I consider carefully what I want to say. But my listening comprehension is terrible. Of course I could read Le Figaro in its entirety-which is really great if you want a first-hand perspective on how much the French hate and fear America Rex Mundi, but just not as useful as being able to carry on a conversation in a bar. As promised, I avoided using my French any time David was in earshot. It is really, really nice to be in London after first Moscow-where even decoding the alphabet was a challenge-and then Paris where I was mocked by my former mastery of the language. I really should have cemented my high school studies (I was, after all, awarded "Best French Language Student in Oklahoma" in 1991, for what little that is worth) with a visit to France back then. But as I told David at least once (OK, four times), the joys of seeing Paris for the first time with such a wonderful guide made it absolutely worth the wait.

Well, my time is up and a sunny London afternoon beckons. I'm off!

March 12, 2003

More Moscow notes

I am awfully taken by Moscow. It is filthy with slush and sand and salt in the roads and on the sidewalks; the traffic approaches Rome levels of threat to passenger and pedestrian alike, with the worst system of one-way streets imaginable; and it is a terribly expensive city. But despite all this, despite the fact that it still hurts to walk and climb the million stairs involved in going anywhere, I am loving my stay and already plotting my triumphant summer return when I plan to be fleet of foot and warm under a canopy of birches.

Of course a great deal of this is due to Rick and Lisa’s amazing hospitality. We are having so much fun—especially Lisa and me as Rick has had to work (except for Monday, a holiday). Monday we went to Novo Deveichy monastery, which was lovely but treacherous; I very nearly fell and as it was tweaked my leg a bit—but I swear, no serious harm. Then we went to the Old Arbat, full of street vendors and souvenir shops. Rick bought Lisa a couple of gorgeous lacquer boxes, and I upgraded to a larger and somewhat ornate rosewood cane (which has prevented two other ass-over-teakettle moments).

Monday night for dinner we went to a truly fabulous restaurant called Pushkin. It is the epitome of classic pre-Revolutionary Russian style, with about a million black-suited waiters, a six-level dining room, and the most ornate and ancient elevator imaginable. The friezes along the ceilings, the light fixtures, the books on the shelves—it was exactly what you would imagine late-Romanov dining must have been like. Rick and I had an amazing borsch—which I love—followed by sturgeon for Rick and some sort of deer sausage for me, which was slightly disappointing. (I cannot remember what Lisa had!) I tried to order the very same bottle of Bandol that figured so prominently in my SS+K dinner, but they were out; we settled for a 1996 Pomerol that did quite nicely (at around $85 a bottle it was nearly the cheapest on a list that went into the high four figures). For dessert, our waiter misheard us and tried to bring some sort of stuffed tomato item, which we dispatched back to the kitchen to the waiter’s brief distress. We enjoyed these tart cherry rice dumplings and a pistachio crème brulee that was out of this world. Rick did at least let me get the wine, but only after I threatened to “pull a Papaw” over the check.

Imagine my utter shock the next day when Lisa’s wonderful book club friend Julia informed me that Pushkin is a complete confection—“it was a whole lotta nothin’ two years ago. They made it out of whole cloth.” It is a little bit of Disney on the Tverskaya Ulitsa. While I was a little heartbroken to have been so completely taken in by a fake, I was somewhat consoled that not only Americans indulge in this kind of simulacrum. In any case, there is no faking amazing food.

Back to the book club. Lisa is a member of (truth be told) quite an exclusive and hard-to-get-into book club for expat women. They were very kind to accept me as their interloper du jour. Tuesday’s topic was Bulgakov, a writer whose work I knew too little about. It was a fascinating disucussion, led by a well-versed if terribly clumsy academic, about his life and work, focusing on “The Heart of a Dog,” his astounding mid-30s satirical novella. The book, which comments on the New Soviet Man by way of a doctor’s wild experimental grafting of human testicles and thyroid into a street mutt, is quite nearly perfect and a very quick read; the full version was confiscated by the KGB and remained locked in its archives until 1988. I am dying to read his great work, The Master and Margarita, which is among other things a meditation on Christian themes in a soulless Soviet context. As other writers and public figures were executed for far lesser critiques of the Soviet system, Stalin actually helped keep Bulgakov alive; they had a bizarre relationship, full of official sadism and apparently avid readership by Stalin himself. Our professor speculated that in fact Bulgakov was allowed to live because Stalin was one of the few to read The Master and Margarita as it was serially confiscated by the authorities—and that killing the troublesome writer would have prevented its completion. I will add some more notes on Bulgakov in coming days, but he is definitely my new favorite Russian writer.

The book club was held at an expat home north of the city in an exclusive gated development—but one a little less scary than the adjacent development, which is basically a Houston suburb plopped down a 30 minute drive from the Kremlin, with Preston Contemporary homes starting at $8,000 a month.

Which brings me to the topic of driving again. One of the defining features of our visit is Pavel, Rick and Lisa’s driver. Neither my aunt or uncle are insane enough to drive in this city—virtually all managerial expats have a car and driver supplied by work. Especially given my gimpy state and the black ice on the sidewalks, Pavel has been a lifesaver for me—but perforce Rick and Lisa depend on him a lot themselves. Lisa takes the Metro some—and at times it is more convenient than battling traffic—but Rick’s office is not easily accessible except by car. Pavel, who is apparently a teetotaling evangelical Christian father of three, logs many hours and probably 100 miles in the car every weekday, and then some. He speaks good English, but is always asking questions to improve it further. Rick and Lisa will probably never find an equal to Surono, their beloved Indonesian driver, but Pavel is a great, good-natured guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of every Moscow sidestreet (or “perulok”). I am all for the revival of religion after the brutal Soviet suppression of the Church, but Pavel does give me an odd feeling that the pendulum is swinging awfully hard the other way. An attempt to discuss Russian literature ended with a flat dismissal: “I’d rather read the Bible.” I fear his worldview does not include a bedside table where the Bible and Bulgakov jostle for space. But the oddest moment—one that showed me that tech geeks are the same the world over—was when he looked at my (quite serviceable) digital camera and said, “Hmmm… Only 2.1 megapixels.” I suppose I really have to upgrade now.

Last night Pavel had to rush back up to Rick’s office to pick him up in time to get him back home in time for us all to get to the Bolshoi Theater for the 7:00 opening of “1001 Nights” staged by the Azerbaijani Ballet and Opera Company. Pavel’s mom had arranged for the tickets; if you get a chance to sit in the fifth row of the Bolshoi, I really can’t recommend it highly enough—no matter how is dancing. The theater is altogether astounding, with its six levels of boxes and ornate loges that have served several versions of a ruling class since their construction. The ballet was spotty, but good toward the end; the shaky moves of some of the dancers was balanced by the sure knowledge that dancing at the Bolshoi was an indelible moment for them. We clapped hard, but cleared out before the rush so that I wouldn’t be trapped on the stairs—a constant occurrence this week as busy Muscovites swarm around me. I may still have to set my brace to asskicking and get all Jackie Chan with my cane before I get to Paris; of course there’s no doubt I’ll want to hit somewhere there upside the head, so perhaps I should practice.

After the Bolshoi, we headed to Petrovich, a restaurant/club recommended to me by Masha, one of David’s coworkers who is a Moscow expat in LA. It is owned by a well-known cartoonist; though it is putatively members-only, Masha felt they would let a troika of nice foreigners in. After an exasperating exchange with the dashing but dour doorman, we were allowed into the dining room—where the truly sorry state of our collective knowledge of Russian became obvious. It is one thing to see a huge sign on a building and work to decode the Cyrillic into something that might sound familiar. It is another thing altogether to face a 10-page photocopied menu (made to look like bureaucratic forms from some gulag circa 1962) with scarcely a word of English. Thank God we had the world’s most patient waiter; among the four of us, we managed to order an amazing meal that featured three times more food than we needed. The highlights were Rick’s borsch (excellent), Lisa’s blini with red and black caviar, and my amazing steak—and a huge mound of frites that we barely made a dent in. All that plus lots and lots of piva (beer) set us back less than $30 a person—definitely our best dining value yet.

When we got home, I was able to call David, who arrived in Berlin without incident (or, sadly, an upgrade). I realized speaking to him how torn I am—so eager to join him in Paris yet so enjoying my time here. And everyone’s prediction is true—with no work worries, I have just totally relaxed. I must say that I do think the expat joke is true—all the men pray every night to come back as expat wives after they die. While I know that there are many trials and tribulations for Lisa and her peers (learning how to go grocery shopping in a strange culture, being far away from family, etc.), I’m definitely going to tell David that his company needs to open an office here. Or perhaps SS+K wants to help build some of Moscow’s odd native brands into global superpowers. If anyone wants to send me here—to be a high-paid executive or a well-read house husband—I’m game.

So I’m trailing off, but today was the Big Kremlin Trip. We were all honestly a bit worried about the logistics on this one—it’s not that I can’t walk, it’s just that the effort of staying on my feet with a world of icy flagstones below is both physically and mentally exhausting. (Actually, it’s the 300-year-old footpath that gently slopes down toward the main entrance to too many buildings that is the real trouble.) Anyway, Lisa and I met our tour guide at 10 and figured out that it would be better not to walk the half-mile to the Kremlin gates—Pavel to the rescue again. We caught up with our guide—and an uncharacteristically dour Canadian family—at the gates after 10 minutes in a cold wind off the Moskva River warding off sketchy types intent on selling me a Red Army hat (which I really sort of wanted, just not that second). The outdoor sections of the tour were cold and treacherous (relatively speaking—the 4 degree Celsius weather was actually pretty good on both counts) but beautiful; I know we all know this by now but the Kremlin so does not look the part it was cast during the Cold War. The restored (and reconsecrated) cathedrals were really moving, particularly the Cathedral of the Domition of Mary with its lovingly restored frescoes and towering iconostasis. The Armory, too, was almost too much to take in—the Cindarella carriages, Catherine the Great’s wasp-waisted gowns, and centuries’ worth of mindbendingly ornate decorative arts given to the ruling family by European powers. We were especially taken by the 16th-17th century English gilt silverware—the world’s finest collection, as London’s lot was smelted by Cromwell and company to make coins—and by Boris Gudonov’s chain mail suit, whose every ring is inscribed “If God be with us, who can be against us.” (The answer, of course, was “some scheming scumbag in your family who wants your throne,” as it ws the answer for half of Russian history.) Oh, yeah, and the Sevres collection that Napoleon sent over just before he laid waste to half of the Russian Empire. (If you ever forget what a bastard that Napoleon was, visit Moscow.)

We continued the week’s Bulgakov theme by dining at the very same Café Margarita mentioned in the book, right at Patriarch’s Pond. Our waitress really couldn’t have cared whether we lived or died, but lunch was great and we were starving. After lunch, we ended our sightseeing today (Wednesday) with a brief stop at the Museum of the Revolution—or more precisely, its dingy but rewarding gift shop, where Lisa and I scored huge with Russian Propaganda posters. I think I took care of pretty much everyone on my list—so if you don’t like Soviet Realism, please email me immediately and I’ll get you a miniature Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Once home, I iced my knee and took a nap (the first of my visit). When Rick got home from a fairly shitty day at the office, we all went to Maharaja, the Indian restaurant where everybody knows his name (it was his favorite standby while Lisa was back in the States this Fall). Yum—and everyone spoke English. (I must say, despite my fears of using “nous” instead of “on” and generally embarrassing myself in front of M. David Francophone Smith, my return to the Roman alphabet and a language I’ve had more than a day’s study of will be only too welcome.) Back safely in our perch above Zkukovsgogo Ulitsa, we watched another episode of Six Feet Under, almost catching me up to where I became a regular viewer.

So… Tomorrow the Tretiakov Galleries (both old and new) and who knows what else.