April 22, 2018

Rome. October, 1986

One of the first words I learned in Italian was Standa, the name of a department store with branches throughout the country. Travelers who need to stock up on basics -- toothpaste, shampoo, even groceries -- can usually find what they need at Standa. At least I always did. And it was a great place to wander, to read labels to see what things were called in Italian. Another of the first words I learned in Italian was sciopero. It means “strike.” And along with guasto (“broken”), it’s a word you’re very likely to see frequently while traveling in Italy. I’ve encountered scioperi many, many times on my trips there. The most memorable one was when I was spending a few days in Agrigento, Sicily, where all shops, all public transportation, everything was set to close for a full day. I prepared by stocking up on cold cuts, bread, fruit. But I needn’t have bothered. When I awoke on strike day, I found my nearby cafe with its security grate pulled down, but only part-way, and locals simply bending down in order to get under and inside for their morning coffee. I guess Sicilians, maybe all Italians, take a casual approach to lo sciopero as they seem to do with many other things, too. An excellent way to live.

April 21, 2018

Boston. April, 2011

For the longest time, I tried to distance myself from my Irish heritage. Yes, I’d been to the Emerald Isle twice over the years, and each time I had to laugh at how very green it was, comically so. But I was just too uncomfortable with childhood memories of unspoken family resentments, tacky St. Patrick’s Day decorations, and all those songs my father would enforce upon us. Maybe I just needed someone whose approach was a bit more subtle, more gentle. Maybe Colm Tóibín. The Irish novelist swept me away from the minute I read the first page of his The Blackwater Lightship, and the luxurious undertow has continued through each novel and collection since. A master of captivating, unobstructed storytelling (you’re never aware of a “writer at work”), his tales of what he calls “almost-ness” strike a real chord in me. So when he appeared in Boston recently for a Q&A with novelist Christopher Castellani (left) and a later talk and reading (a performance really) of his story “Two Women,” I was in the front row for each. My family always used the expression “the gift of Blarney” as a way of saying someone had the knack of spinning a good yarn. And while he may not call it something that obvious, Tóibín sure has got it.

April 20, 2018

Watertown, MA. April, 2011

My mother was Irish-American and not a remarkable cook. She kept our family fed, and varied the food we ate to make sure we didn’t get bored with “the same old thing.” Period. As I learned more about food (especially about the food that my friend Nick’s Italian-American mother served), I realized that there were few of my mother’s recipes that I would like to save. Only one, actually. Her lemon bread pudding was a wonderful dish that remains happily in memory. When I moved away from home, I asked her for the recipe. She hesitated, then stalled for months, years. I pestered and she finally said she’d send the recipe. She didn’t. (Did I mention she was Irish?) Years later, on the afternoon following her funeral, when my brother and I were sitting quietly at home, I spotted an old “diary” from 1962, something my mother used to stash clippings and coupons and such. As I picked it up, a sheet of paper slid out and fell to the floor. The recipe. Finally. It’s still the best example of this homey dessert I’ve found, not for want of searching. Above, my most recent taste-test, the banana-chocolate bread pudding from the wonderful (and mercifully close) Russo’s. Among the baked goods on offer, their ciabatta-like Rustic Bread cannot be beat. But their bread pudding can be.

April 19, 2018

Bofinger, Paris. December, 2005

When I studied French in high school and college, the textbooks always contained “conversations” from which to learn. The most memorable one for me was “au restaurant” with Pierre and Philippe. The resto they spoke about: Bofinger. So, when Nick and I were in Paris a few years ago, we had to go. Bofinger is a storied brasserie near the Bastille, serving up, as all brasseries do, great platters of shellfish followed by equally great platters of sausages, sauerkraut, boiled vegetables. Brasseries were originally large beer halls, which later started to add food to their offerings, soon settling on what has now become their standard fare. The Parisian classics are Brasserie Lipp (favored by Hemingway), Brasserie Flo, Au Pied de Cochon, La Coupole, many more. But for me (as for Pierre and Philippe), Bofinger will always be the one. “On y mange très bien, paraît-il,” if I remember my textbook correctly, “One eats very well there.” Oui.

April 18, 2018

Centro Habana, Cuba. February, 2012

La vida real. That’s what I wanted to see when I visited Cuba. Real life. When I visit anywhere, actually. Alas, in order to travel to the Pearl of the Antilles legally, I had to go as part of a US State Department-licensed group, and our time and activities were scheduled morning, noon and (sometimes) night. On one of the free nights, I was traveling solo though Central Havana and met Hanoi, a Santería diviner, who guided me through the shadowy byways of his neighborhood, places unwise for a gringo to negotiate alone, especially at night. As we walked down one such calle, I could see a shining storefront ahead, a bright beacon in the darkness, a barbershop. Could I take a picture? Hanoi asked his neighbors, they were gracious, this is the result. ¿La vida real? Un poquito.

April 17, 2018

Santa Cruz River Park, Tucson. March, 2011

I have running routes in many of my favorite cities, none more treasured than this one in Tucson. From Simon and David’s house, down through the neighborhoods (where everyone seems to have at least one barking dog; I only know the hyperactive chihuahua Muchachito by name), along Congress Street and onto the path that follows this dried-up river bed. Then it’s out through desert landscape to the prison and back, about five miles total. But all of it is flat. And warm. A nice treat to run in shorts and a T-shirt mornings in early March. And while my wildlife sightings are usually limited to other runners, cyclists and the occasional prison work crew, I’ve often see quail, prairie dogs and rabbits, even some cartoon-like roadrunners and coyotes along the way. I start out along the A Mountain side (see it there on the right?) and cross the river for my return, passing behind Mexican-American homes with chickens and horses. And, of course, more dogs. And because the air is so dry, you do break a sweat, but it evaporates almost instantly.

April 16, 2018

Rome. October, 1980

The first time I went to Rome, I was shocked when I saw SPQR on buildings, on municipal trash barrels, on manhole covers like this one. I’d always associated these imperial initials only with the glory that was the early Roman Republic, with the Caesars, Marc Antony, Nero, Spartacus. Senatus Populusque Romanus, the senate and people of Rome. It appears on ancient coins, monuments and on the standards of Roman legions. (My friend Janet’s mother had it as her vanity license plate years ago, which might tell you something about the woman’s parenting style.) Who knew that it still existed, still meant the same thing in the 20th century? I was also shocked to see that this cover was made in Florence, a longtime Roman rival in the fields of politics, culture and sport. So it came as less of a surprise when a Tuscan friend told me that many in the north of Italy translate SPQR as Sono porchi questi Romani. “What pigs these Romans are!” Nice.