November 21, 2017

Lisbon. November, 2010

Duas bicas, por favor. My Portuguese is not all that great, but it’s good enough to order us two rocket-fuel espressos and a pastel de nata at the wonderful Confeitaria Nacional on Lisbon’s Praça da Figueira. We have this theory: The further south you go, the stronger the coffee and the smaller the amount. (The strongest-smallest I’ve ever encountered was in a small cafe on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Enna, Sicily: it appeared to have been dispensed from an eyedropper and had the consistency of maple syrup. Terrific.) It seems the Nacional subscribes to this theory, too, serving us a bica that consisted of a scant tablespoon of very powerful stuff. Not a problem. Especially when Jay and I split the first emblematic custard tart of our visit. The first of many, needless to say, sampled at a wide range of pastelarias across the city. (We even bought some warm pre-packaged ones in a downtown supermarket to bring home with us. Not the best, naturally, but they still somehow disappeared within hours of our Boston return.)

November 20, 2017

Watertown, MA. October, 2011

When a favorite writer authors a book about a favorite city, well.... Irish novelist and journalist Colm Tóibín spent much of his restless twenties in Barcelona, just at the end of Franco’s reign and afterwards. So his book serves up multiple perspectives. Not just his own as a foreigner (no matter how much Catalan he studied or how many Spaniards he slept with) but also those of the lifelong residents whose confidences and memories he secured. A great book, Homage to Barcelona (whose title offers a respectful nod to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) provides an insider’s look into the city’s various neighborhoods and sights, of course. But also an accessible and enjoyably readable look at how being Catalan informed the visions of such native masters as Picasso, Gaudí, Miró and Casals. It’s also the first book I’ve come across to make sense for me of the various factions involved in the Spanish Civil War and how they interacted over those turbulent years, how Franco’s tenure suppressed (but didn’t snuff out) the art, the language, the heart of Catalonia.

November 19, 2017

Gloucester, MA. March, 2005

I’ve taken a different attitude toward snowfall here in New England now that I don’t have a pre-dawn, hour-long commute to the middle of nowhere. I see it as decorative rather than menacing. In the past, one flake and I’d begin to fret. Now, like kids in my neighborhood, I still watch the streetlights on snowy nights, but instead of hoping for “snow days” as the school-age kids do, I look at it more as the pre-schoolers do. Something to enjoy, have fun with. For a different perspective, check in with my friends whose flights to Europe last Christmastime were completely fouled up for almost a week by European airports’ panic over unaccustomed snow. And one pal whose Boston flight to Houston was weather-inconvenienced. (He arrived at Logan Airport at 11am, finally got on his delayed flight, which was then de-iced, taxied down the runway...then it turned around and emptied its passengers back at the terminal. TWICE. He finally took off to sunny and warm Texas after 10:30pm.) In this photo, taken in our Gloucester front yard, I am happily accepting one of those “things I cannot change.”

November 18, 2017

Amalfi, Italy. October, 2011

On my only other visit to Amalfi some 27 years earlier, I’d arrived by bus. I can still remember my heart being in my throat as the driver twisted and turned high up on switchback mountain passes, no guardrails, honking his horn to alert any hidden cars that might be blindly speeding toward us around the narrow curves. Yikes! This time was blessedly different. We sailed along, gently approaching the tiny city that gives its name to the entire coast. The summer crowds were gone. School kids crowded the streets on their way home for lunch. Farmers on the hillsides made small bonfires of fallen leaves and long-spent vines. The light was beautifully muted, the colors autumnal.

November 17, 2017

Istanbul. October, 2011

Our first trip across the Bosphorus on this most-recent visit to the City of the World’s Desire was magical in every way. The sun was setting over Aya Sofia. The ferry sheltered a gentle and uncrowded mix of families, pals, businessmen returning home to the Asian side of the city from their work in the European section. No one was pushing, no one in a hurry. Tea was offered. Smiles. Welcomes. And we were on our way to a wonderful dinner at Çiya. Every time I cross this fabled waterway I can’t help wondering about all those who have crossed before me. How these same currents have carried passengers since the days of antiquity. And will continue to do so. Humbling.

November 16, 2017

Madrid. October, 2009

Look at this thing. It’s a wall of greenery planted onto the side of an otherwise nondescript building, a 78-foot-high vertical garden, a work of art. It stands outside the CaixaForum gallery not far from the Prado, and even though Madrid is a city where one gets used to surprises, this “living painting” of 15.000 plants from some 250 species by French artist Patric Blanc comes as a surprise. Blanc believes that “plants don’t need earth: only water, minerals, light and carbon dioxide,” and he’s been putting his belief into practice, building these vertical gardens since 1988 in such places as Paris, Osaka, New York, Bangkok, New Delhi and Genoa. He hopes gardens such as these will be created in train stations, parking lots, the metro, “those difficult spaces where you don’t expect to see greenery.” Surprise!

November 15, 2017

San Francisco. November, 2005

People sometimes ask me why I bother with Isn’t it filled with suspect information from know-it-alls with bad taste who gravitate toward the common choices of restaurants and meals? Um, no. Well, not all the time. When I was going to San Francisco on business a few years ago, I posted on the SFO Chowhound board asking where a solo diner might be able to get a good meal and not feel uncomfortable dining alone. I got dozens of replies, some repeats, but enough for me to start investigating. The result: I wound up with some mighty fine eats when I was there. My favorites were the Anchor Oyster Bar on Castro Street (where I sat at the small bar and had a great conversation with the bartender/server who made me feel right at home) and Tommy’s Joynt -- “Where Turkey Is King” -- on Geary at Van Ness (a rough and tumble, no-frills cafeteria/bar where I met a visiting couple in line and wound up eating a great meal and laughing a great deal with them.) I took this picture at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher (now renamed as Gott’s Roadside Tray Gourmet...why?) in the Ferry Building Marketplace, a place where I didn’t actually, um, EAT, but whose sign appealed both to me and to all that I stand for.