I don’t like New Year’s Eve. But I do like ritual. So I manage to get through the former by indulging in the latter. Each Dec. 31, I write down all the “resentments” that I would like to shed and toss them into the fire before midnight, hoping that their turning to ash will prevent them from coming with me into the new year. (Once, in Paris, with no easy access to a fireplace, I ripped my list into confetti and scattered it over the dark waters of the Seine.) Over the years, my list has evolved to include more things I dislike about myself than quibbles about others. But there are some regulars who always find themselves in the fire: mostly people who use politics or religion or corporate power (or all three) to advance selfish and unjust agendas. You know who you are. Another ritual I love comes from my friend Nick and his family: I jump off the couch at midnight into the new year, leaving the old one, well, on the couch, I guess.
December 30, 2011
I’ve been thinking about Vincent Price lately. About this first time I was a guest at his home in the “Bird Streets” near Doheny Drive above Sunset Boulevard. (When he invited me, he jokingly called it “Vincent’s Bed and Breakfast.”) And about the last time I visited him, a year after this picture was taken, in 1993 when he was confined to bed or a wheelchair, and we watched City Slickers together (“Jack Palance is such an asshole!”) with the lights of LA glittering below. He had people taking care of him that time (one was fledgling Doogie Howser actor Mitchell Anderson), and I remember that during one of his naps, I spent time in this garden, taking cuttings (with his permission) so that I could root them and have a part of him with me always. (I still have them, thriving large plants now.) As I left in a cab one morning, heading to the LA County Museum and then on to visit Simon and David in Tucson, he reached up to me and said, “We will never see each other again.” I was stunned. No one had ever said anything like that to me before. And sadly, of course, it was true.
December 29, 2011
My birthday lunch. At Bofinger, a restaurant that I’d wanted to eat at for about 40 years. Why? Because it was featured in a college French class textbook in a conversation between Pierre et Philippe, two young hommes who began each of the lessons with some adventure. “Au restaurant” included Pierre’s suggestion that they eat at “Bofinger, 5 Rue de la Bastille,” and, sure enough, that’s the correct address. Polished brass, dark wood-paneled walls, a leaded-glass ceiling that domes the more formal main dining room. Upstairs, where Nick and I were seated, Bofinger shows its true colors as a real brasserie, serving up mountains of shellfish as a way to begin. We had a selection of oysters and some lobster, saving room for choucroute garnie. (Didn’t Pierre and Philippe have that, too?) A platter of warm, flavorful sauerkraut garnished with a generous assortment of several kinds of sausages, hams, chops, potatoes. A wonderful birthday memory, and we agree with P&P that “on y mange très bien, paraît-il.”
December 28, 2011
Tucson is a town abundant with artists. And with activists. So it comes as no surprise when these groups intersect as they often do. In the huge street-side windows of an architectural firm on 6th Street, two large loose canvases hung from metal beams, each dotted with painted acrylic, front and back. Still Life in Rwanda, it’s called, by Eleni Sakellar, and the posted artist’s statement tells us this: “# of drops applied w/ eyedropper to canvas: 800,000. # of days it took to complete: 60. Average # drops per day: 14,000. # of people killed in 1994 Rwandan genocide: 800,000. # of days it took to kill them: 100. Average # killed per day: 8,000. Cost of materials for the painting: $400. Cost of each life lost during the genocide: priceless.” (Today, December 28, is the feast of the Holy Innocents.)
December 27, 2011
I remember when I was a child, my parents would sometimes drive back to New Jersey from visiting friends in Brooklyn through Manhattan and past the Christmas crèche set up at St. Anthony’s near Greenwich Village. And here it is, still displaying its homey charm, greens tacked up with a random naturalness rather than something sophisticated and floristy. When I came across this photo today, I was reminded of a November, 1984 afternoon in Rome when I went into a small shop behind the Pantheon, looking for some small crèche figures to bring home to my mother. When I entered, I was surprised that the figures I’d admired in the window were plastic, not wood as they’d seemed. The signora assured me that plastica was much more practical, especially in a home where children might damage the figures, etc. And to demonstrate, she picked up the baby Jesus and threw it onto the floor. “Ecco!” she said as I gasped in horror.
December 26, 2011
Caravaggio, the late 16th-century painter who was no stranger to scandal, caused admirers to gasp with this painting, Madonna di Loreto, seen here in the space it was painted for in Rome’s Sant’Agostino in Campo Marzio. The madonna (aka BVM) is shown in an apparition to two peasants as a common barefoot housewife, her petitioners not only barefoot but displaying their dirty soles! Her appearance not in some vaulted niche but in a shabby doorway, bricks showing through the decrepit plaster. Shame! There is no denying the power of this wonderful painting, just inside a relatively modest church on a somewhat hidden street not far from the tourist throngs in the Piazza Navona. Twenty-five years ago, I’d often had it (and a Raphael fresco of the prophet Isaiah just steps down the aisle) all to myself. No such luck these days. But still, the crowds are not as large as those at Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew trifecta in the nearby San Luigi dei Francesi.
December 25, 2011
One of the many pleasures of having a pastry chef as a best friend is, well, take a look. This is (part of) the dessert spread at Nick’s Christmas Day table. A Bûche de Noël, lower left, with wonderful coffee-flavored buttercream icing and marzipan mushrooms and pinecones. A fig-and-chocolate-filled Sicilian buccellato, upper left, sprinkled with i diavoletti. A center platter of his Truffle Brownies and (a favorite) pecan squares. And you can just see his panettone, upper right, and a plate of his checkerboard sablé cookies, extreme right. And the golden crown, lower right, is his take on his friend Rosa’s mother’s (from Macao) fruitcake recipe that is out of this world. You can find recipes for all of these in Nick’s books (and many are on his website, too), but it’s much nicer to arrive at his home and find them already prepared and smiling at you. (I also have a photo taken after people had sampled "just a small piece" from each of these sweets. You can just imagine. Think Dresden, 1945.)
December 24, 2011
When I was growing up, Christmas Eve was often a tense evening in our family, and after some nominal gift-giving, I’d flee to my friend Nick’s house for his mother’s wonderful seafood-based menu. Shrimp, lobster, fish, pasta, lots of laughs, I loved it and looked forward to it every year. This past Christmas Eve, Jay and I had another terrific dinner, thanks to my friend Toni and her husband Paul. Toni gave me a piece of striped bass (that Paul had caught months earlier off Cape Cod and had quickly frozen in sea water), her grandmother’s recipe to prepare it, as well as her own tweaks to the dish. Grandma: Combine sliced garlic, parsley, olive oil and a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes in a saucepan. Simmer for 45 minutes or more, then insert the defrosted fish filet and simmer for some ten minutes or more. Serve over linguine; sprinkle with chopped parsley. Toni’s tweaks: Color the garlic in the oil first. Add a tablespoon of Vietnamese fish sauce to the simmering tomatoes. We followed Toni’s suggestions. Magnificent.
December 23, 2011
There is no escaping the scallop shell in this pilgrim destination in Northern Spain. It’s the traditional emblem of Saint James (Santiago), one of the two national patron saints. (The other is Saint Teresa of Ávila.) Beginning in the 9th century, pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela would carry a scallop shell not only to identify themselves, but also allegedly to scoop up sustenance offered to them along the sacred way. These days shops offer cakes in the scallop shape. Door-knocking hardware. And all sorts of jewelry, from demure earrings to over-the-top brooches. The scallop is even reproduced in brass and set into the city’s pavement to designate the official camino that pilgrims still follow. Here in the city’s Museo das Peregrinacións, there is an almost laughable number of these shells reproduced in paintings, books and decorative objects like this ornately embellished trunk. In supermarkets, you can buy pre-baked pastry shells in the scallop shape to fill with ice cream and pieces of fruit, resulting in a delightful mix of devotion and dessert.
December 22, 2011
Serendipity. I was to have dinner with friends in Concord that night. I wanted to see my pal Peter’s art exhibit at the Groton School’s Brodigan Gallery. And I had long delayed a visit to my Groton-based friend Karen. Plus, I had the afternoon free. It all worked out and it all was wonderful. Karen’s house is a charmer, just like she is. And she accompanied me to the exhibit of Peter’s collages, prints, collections in jars and type trays. Beautiful and obsessive. Or, to quote Karen, “Mad as a hatter.” I’d never been to Groton much less to the school and its extensive grounds. So before we left the old building that housed the gallery, I crept like an intruder up the circular staircase to the second-floor dining hall. It reminded me of all those British schools we see in movies like Harry Potter and the Whatever. But when I looked up...this! Dozens of Asian parasols suspended from the ceiling. A bit of unexplained whimsy floating high above all that formal tradition.
December 21, 2011
I’ve never been a big fan of tourist-oriented anything. Organized tours, guided groups, mass-produced souvenirs, you name it. So I took little interest in the candy here at Istanbul’s admittedly touristy Spice Bazaar when I saw it was being marketed to Americans as Turkish Viagra. To the French as Aphrodisiaque. Granted, it wasn’t just at this historic emporium where I saw this. And the Turks certainly know their tourist market. Maybe it also has something to do with my not being particularly fond of halva, the sesame-based nougat which much of this turned out to be. Too dry and crumbly for me. I wanted it to be more chewy and challenging, like the Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy of my youth. No such luck. Though the pistachios throughout are certainly appealing. And that chocolate hazelnut confection (called simply “chocolate hazelnut”) looks pretty good, too. Instead I opted for some dark Urfa chili powder from Şanlıurfa, deep in southeastern Anatolia. Black as midnight and with a warm, smokey taste that I’d never experienced here in the states. No claims of an improved sex life however.
December 20, 2011
I love the town I live in. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. I can walk to Harvard Square, bike to Boston. I live two blocks from a wonderful assortment of Middle Eastern stores. The library and (most of) its staff are terrific. And Watertown has the best Christmas lights I’ve ever seen. Perhaps not the most gaudy or spectacular, but certainly the most beautiful and sophisticated. Located smack dab in the center of Watertown Square, they are a dazzling surprise each time I take the bridge across the Charles River and (inevitably) have to wait at the traffic lights nearby. I never mind waiting (at least in December at night) because I can look up and see these remarkable twinklers, somehow strung in the trees to allow the lights to define the lines of the branches themselves. No draping here, no colorful distractions, these minimal decorations are amazingly elegant and take my breath away each time I see them.
December 19, 2011
When I visited my friends Giovanni and Renata in their hometown of Ravenna, I was charmed by how few cars there were in the centro, how many pedestrians and, because the city is relatively flat, how many cyclists. And then, a week later, I came upon this sight in Bologna. Yikes! It was outside a school, and I guess there’s a bike rack in there somewhere. How could you possibly find space for another bike? And how could you find your bike when you wanted to leave later in the day? But I do understand the joy of cycling through a smallish city. When I met friends Antonio and Roberta for dinner in Lucca (often described as being what Florence was like 100 years ago), I’d forgotten some small gifts I’d brought for them, and Antonio gave me his bicicletta in order to get to my hotel and back subito. It was thrilling pedaling along through the narrow, empty streets, pretending that I lived there and, of course, did this every day. In Naples? Rome? Non, grazie. But in Lucca, anytime.
December 18, 2011
This is a train station. Can you believe it? It’s right in plain sight, right off the Praça de Restauradores. But the first few times I went looking for the Rossio station, I walked blithely by it, thinking this was something more fanciful. But no, this is the hub that offers trains between Lisbon and the towns west to Sintra. Designed at the end of the 19th century, it’s a Romantic recreation in the Neo-Manueline style, and was originally designated the Estação Central, the name that still remains carved into its facade. Inside it’s a lot more slick and modern (there’s even an art gallery), but no less confusing. I’m still not sure what we purchased (or how) that got us through the mechanical gates and onto the platforms to board the car to Sintra, that fairytale UNESCO World Heritage village an hour or so from Lisbon that’s beautiful, yes, but a little too sanitized for my liking.
December 17, 2011
I look forward to the Sage Farm Christmas party every year. (It’s tonight!) My beloved creative partner Mike and his beloved life partner Brian have the most beautiful home and horse farm, and they turn their greenhouse into the greatest, most welcoming party space, filled with plants, a koi pond, cats and dogs, eager Yankee Swappers, terrific refreshments and a rich roster of wonderful guests. Take this group, for example. Jim (lower left) opens his Boston home to long-term international boarders, and you never know who he’s going to show up with. In this seven-up, along with our friend and Mission Hillbilly, Dave (red and center), we have our amigos queridos puertorriqueños Daniel and Evelyn, lovely first-timer Angelo (lower right) from Salerno, Italy, via Milan, and charming initiate Thomas from Germany. We counted five languages going on here. (And that’s not including Daniel’s “special” language that he declined to reveal. Or the fact that townspeople at the library where Evelyn works think that she’s Russian.) Oh, and as far as all the “red eye,” some of it’s flash, some of it, I suspect, may be the refreshments.
December 16, 2011
I’d been to the San Xavier Mission several times before with Simon and David, but had never wandered much beyond the church. And the gift shop. So this time, when Simon and I drove out there on a whim late one Sunday afternoon, we took a brief hike around the small, cross-topped hill just off to the side of the parking lot. Along the way, this grotto, fenced off and housing a statue of the Virgin and these many offerings to her. Artificial flowers, rosaries, items of clothing (from bandanas to gym socks), photos, other personal curios, all left in hopes of blessings. Way in the back there you can just glimpse some votive candles, glass cylinders placed there by some keyholder, probably lit for the occasional services within the grotto. Also to the side, a statue of a young girl, kneeling, praying to the apparition. Who could it be? Bernadette of Lourdes? One of the Fatima kids? The main virgen honored in these parts is Our Lady of Guadalupe, but she was seen by a man. No explanation. The only sign thereabouts was a request: Please Respect this Sacred Place.
December 15, 2011
I had always wondered why the houses in pictures from the Greek Isles all seemed to feature whitewashed walls and deep-blue windows and doors. Then I arrived in Mykonos. The sea. The light. The sand. I had my answer. Just look at that blue water. Exactly the color painted on almost every shutter and piece of trim on the island. (And the colors of the Greek flag, too, come to think of it.) So beautiful. So calming. We arrived on the day after October’s biggest national strike, but even the small band of protesters on the quay had musical instruments with them, nonchalantly playing and carrying their placards as if this were something they did every afternoon. Maybe it is.
December 14, 2011
There’s no escaping Audrey Hepburn. Or Truman Capote. When I was in Palermo for the first time in 1984, I got it into my head that I wanted to find a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Italian. Collazione da Tiffany. Of course, I found it, the Italians being known for their appreciation of fine art. And, of course, I didn’t buy it once I realized that my Italian was such that I couldn’t read much beyond the title. Here in southern Spain, I wandered into a bookstore one afternoon and look! Again, an appreciation of high style. Why, even Adolfo Suárez seems to be taking his cue from Miss H. Some practical wisdom -- my friend Patti, whenever she’s been nervous before a job interview, has invoked this bit of advice: Pretend you’re Audrey Hepburn. Try it next time. It works. Just don’t pretend you’re Truman Capote. That can be less effective.
December 13, 2011
My only other visit to the City of the World’s Desire had been in early June, so this time I was eager to see what the autumn harvests would bring to market. Quince, pomegranates, walnuts. But the best seasonal treasure in store for us? Figs! Seen here close to the vendor’s blue apron, these sweet and embarrassingly juicy treats made for excellent breakfasts sliced over Turkish yogurt and almonds. We were also fortunate to arrive in Istanbul at the beginning of hamsı season, the longed-for Black Sea anchovies that we dined on (twice in three days!) -- offered simply cleaned, dusted with cornmeal and fried. Local and sustainable? Bring it on.
December 12, 2011
Chickens. Fashion. Lamb. This was my first trip to Italy (not counting a dinner in a seaside town on the French border eight years earlier) and I loved everything about it. Some things more than others, of course. Like the wonderful juxtapositions so natural there that would seem so astonishing back home. Another lineup that we saw time and time again was: Bar. Pasticceria. Duomo. (Bar. Pastry Shop. Cathedral.) Also ancient Roman ruins side-by-side with sweater stores. My friend Antonio tried to explain these seeming mismatches to me the first time I went to visit him in Lucca. We were driving home from dinner at a great restaurant owned by a friend of his, passing lots of haggard prostitutes hanging out under bridge overpasses, waiting for pickups. I wondered aloud how something so carnal and so obvious could exist in such a Catholic country. He shrugged and, referencing the famous porn-star-turned-politician (who continued to make hardcore films while in office), said, “In my country we have the Pope...and Cicciolina.”
December 11, 2011
OK, what is this? Among the many public art projects that my friend Simon has devised in and around his hometown of Tucson are these panels to enhance a downtown parking garage. Charged with retaining the natural light of the garage’s open spaces, with designing something that would look good in both daylight and at night, and with keeping the materials’ budget as low as possible, here’s what he came up with: diagonal panels that zig-zag across the openings on each level, made from two perforated sheets of aluminum sandwiched together with blue and golden marble in between. Sunlight reflects off of them and also shines through them, bringing a watery shimmer into the garage. At night, lights inside the garage provide the opposite effect, illuminating the panels from within. When I showed this project to my friend Ted on his recent visit to Tucson, he wondered, “How do people come up with great ideas like this?” Ask Simon.
December 10, 2011
It was drizzling and raining on and off. We’d just had lunch with our new Istanbul friend Cenk, then stopped for a quince dessert before descending the very steep streets to this neighborhood of antiques dealers, one we’d read about in Orhan Pamuk’s extraordinary novel The Museum of Innocence. Jay had loved the book as much as I did, and I had promised I’d show him the area. Who would have thought we’d find the actual corner, the very house so pivotal to the book’s narrative...and that when we found it, we’d spy this plaque! A real museum? Even more remarkable, just then a small group from the German Bundestag approached in the rain, knocked on the door, it opened and they started to enter. When they told me they were having an “exclusive” advance tour, somehow I was bold enough to ask, “Can we join you?” They kindly asked the museum proprietress who said no. In Turkish I implored, “Lutfen?” (Please.) Then a miracle happened. As if entering the door to Alice’s rabbit hole, we were allowed into the most magical and wondrous and teary hour of our trip. Among the many obsessive treats in store when the museum opens to the public this spring: hundreds and hundreds of lipstick-stained cigarette butts, gathered after the novel’s “loved one” has dropped them, mounted as precisely and as tenderly as butterflies in a science display. Mesmerizing.
December 9, 2011
It’s a given that the internet has made the world a smaller place. Or at least a more connected, accessible one. So why should I be shocked when I receive a comment here from a reader in Portugal, mentioning he’s been following SLS for some time now and saying, “Every day is a great and funny surprise”? But shocked (and thrilled) I was, maybe because the beautiful town he’s from, Coimbra, is one of my favorites. Our first overnight in Portugal. Our introduction to hearty Portuguese meals (and portion sizes!) Our initial encounter with pastéis de nata, the splendid custard tarts, which we then sampled as often as possible. And a memorable lazy Sunday afternoon spent sitting in a riverfront park along with like-minded locals. Earlier that day, we’d run through this same park, along the river, in and out of the dense morning fog. But once the sun came out, we were ready, just like this guy, to observe a wonderful day of rest. And to my new friend in Coimbra: Olá, Miguel, e muito obrigado.
December 8, 2011
This volcanic Greek Isle, thought by some to be inspiration for the legendary Atlantis, blew its top a long time ago. The result: a deep, deep harbor (so deep that our ship, seen here, couldn’t drop anchor) called the caldera, surrounded by a number of remaining border islands. When you leave your ship and get transferred to the small dock area, you have three choices to get to the town 1,000 feet up on the cliffs. 1. A cable car for 4 euros. 2. A donkey ride for 5 euros. 3. Walk up a switchback path (carefully, because it’s the same path the donkeys take) for no euros. We opted for the cable car, as you can see. The donkey option sounded “authentic,” but everyone we know who made that choice smelled like donkey for the rest of the day. Some for longer.
December 7, 2011
Peter Madden and I have been friends for some 30 years. Since before he decided to go to art school, move to New England from NYC (where he grew up on Jane Street), and before he became an acclaimed book artist, admirably blurring the lines between book making and fine art. From early on, we’ve both shared an inordinate interest in singer Ronee Blakley and the films of Russ Meyer, specifically those featuring the late, great Tura Satana. In the years since Peter has gone legit, he’s taught and been an inspiration to countless students and has exhibited his work around the world. And whenever one of those exhibitions is local, I try to attend. Like this one, ‘Beyond the Book,’ at nearby LynnArts Center. You can see one of his stitched, accordion-pleated books in the back on the left, one of his cyan prints on the wall behind his head. Built from the simplest of materials and infused with his talent for quirky memoir, no wonder his books have such appeal.
December 6, 2011
Our only stop in the Peloponnese, this beautiful medieval town has, like many coastal towns in Greece, an old city and a new one. This is the old one, a pedestrian-only island connected to the mainland by a thin causeway (off the left of the photo) that can barely accommodate the width of one car. (Monemvasia actually means “single entrance.”) The city was founded by the Byzantines in the sixth century and, as with other fortified ports in this part of the world, was conquered by the Franks, the Byzantines again, Catalonian mercenaries, Turks, Venetians, Turks again, Greeks, and now by tourists. Cobbled alleys and paths, many staircases built into steep cliffs, houses established wherever space appeared, often on the cliffs themselves between existing structures. Look at the top over towards the right. See the domed building? It, too, has a checkered past. Built in the 12th century as a Byzantine church (one of 40 in the small town), it became a mosque under the Turks and a church under the Venetians, etc. It’s called Agia Sofia reportedly because it was said to resemble its namesake in Constantinople. Only about 100 times smaller. Still, a lovely visual reward for our vigorous climb to the top.
December 5, 2011
Long ago, when I was part of an international Mail Art exchange, my posts crossed paths with those of Antonio, a stranger to me then in Lucca. So when I was planning my first extended solo trip to Italy, he and I made sure we met. I arrived by train, Antonio took me to his family’s home, and later, introduced me to his girlfriend Roberta at the restaurant you see here. I wish I could remember the location or what we ate, but those memories are all overwhelmed by this one. The owner, for reasons only he can fathom, came out dressed as a woman (fully made up, wig, padded bra) and chatted with all the customers. No one batted an eye. One lunchtime at Antonio’s parents’ table, we were watching an Italian TV variety show (hosted, I think, by Fellini star Sandra Milo) and a man came out holding a flute, backed by a full orchestra. When the time came in the piece for the flutist’s entrance, the man played it fiercely. With his nose! Again, no one batted an eye. But I was astonished and started to giggle. Antonio’s family looked at me as if I were the strange one. And, under the circumstances, I may have been.
December 4, 2011
This is a color photograph. Taken in front of our old home at 125c Oxford Street after a surprise snowfall. One of the nice things about 125c was the off-street parking, a rarity in Cambridge, which really came in handy on days like this. (Snow-related street parking bans made the few precious spots even fewer.) That’s Jay, front and center, and the presence of a broom leaning against my car leads me to believe that this was not a major snowfall, though it looks like a heavy, wet one, no? We lived in this open-plan townhouse together for 10 years. And after we both moved, I lived there again some 10 years later, only leaving when an aggressively troublesome neighbor and her artless piano playing at all hours drove me up a wall. Actually into a wall -- I put my fist through one in anger and frustration and, after I calmed down and eventually repaired the wall, realized it was time to move on. A good move as it happens.
December 3, 2011
Even though I don’t like the twerpy way I look in the photo, I do like the people in it. Especially Magda, a cousin of my friend Robert whose family we were visiting behind the Iron Curtain. She taught me some Czech (“Good night” and “next year”), I taught her some English (“Please” and “Thank you.”) My favorite of her English pronunciations was her reply every time I thanked her: “You wel cun.” Close enough. She and her husband and their son, Daniel, hosted us on their small farm for several days, bringing us tumblers of still-warm fresh milk and equally sized glasses of vodka for breakfast. Magda was the disciplinarian in the family and I still remember with astonishment how hard she slapped Daniel once when he back-talked. One night, staying with them in a vacation cabin (no electricity, no running water) here in the Tatry Mountains, I HAD TO wash my hair. I heard water. I snuck out of the cabin with my shampoo (and, truth be told, my creme rinse) and tiptoed to a nearby stream. In the morning, another cousin indicated she’d witnessed my little adventure and said something unfamiliar to me in Czech. We looked it up in the bilingual dictionary: “Snakes.”
December 2, 2011
Comimos de todo. One of the Pimsleur Spanish lessons that I studied before heading back to Spain included this essential phrase for “We ate a little of everything.” Or, as was sometimes the case with us, “We ate everything, period.” Take, for example, our first lunch in Barcelona on a recent visit. We were hungry, tired from a transatlantic flight and a plane change in Madrid. We started walking and wound up, as luck would have it, at El Xampanyet in the El Born section of the city, just across the street from the Picasso Museum. Small and welcoming, this tapas bar, we found out, prides itself on the quality of its fish. Especially its marinated anchovies and sardines of all kinds, some of which are seen here. Accompanied by a plate of artichoke hearts, some potato croquetas, some ham, some tortilla...it was just what we wanted. And so easy, especially when the welcoming and super-friendly waitress made helpful suggestions...in Spanish, in English, in French. Impressed, I said to her in Spanish, “You speak so many languages.” To which she modestly replied, “Yo hablo nada.”
December 1, 2011
Folks in this town on the Adriatic coast sometimes say, “Se Parigi avesse il mare, sarebbe una piccola Bari.” (“If Paris had the sea, it would be a little Bari.”) Um, that wasn’t really my first impression. I kept driving in circles, fruitlessly trying to find a place to park. But that minor annoyance quickly faded when Nick and I called upon Paola, a wonderful Roman woman who had settled in this Pugliese town, famed for its homeboy Saint Nicholas. (Though in Bari, he’s a saint, period; not a jolly heavy-set guy prone to red wardrobes and seasonal gift-giving. They leave that responsibility to a witch called La Befana.) Paola welcomed us into her home and, even though she couldn’t join us for a meal, she kindly made a lunch reservation for us at a great restaurant, Vecchia Bari, calling the chef to make specific recommendations as to which dishes he might serve us, among them the traditional Barese orecchiette con cime di rapa. (Later, Paola wrote out her own recipe for me in her spidery, Italian handwriting.) After lunch and a walk about town, I was driving Paola to the class Nick was going to teach at her cooking club, and she kept admonishing me in English that I was going way too fast (“I’m so angry,” she repeatedly said, meaning “scared.”) I love this picture. If all of Bari were as nice as Paola, Paris would have something to aspire to.
November 30, 2011
Our only other visit to Lisbon (aside from a plane touchdown in 1995) had been in October, 2009, so we were unprepared this time for the city’s beginning to decorate itself for Christmas. Lights strung across streets in the Bairro Alto. Stores beginning to bling up their windows and facades. “Boas Festas” signs all over the place. Look at the snowballs or globes or whatever hung above the pedestrian street Rua das Portas de Santo Antão seen here on our way back from another satisfying dinner at A Esquina da Fé. Some guidebooks warn that this neighborhood may be too dangerous for tourists to stroll. What? That has never been our impression. We want the real Lisbon (and its restaurants), not the sanitized Disneyed attractions on offer to the timid. And besides, who would possibly misbehave beneath such well-wishing decorations as these?
November 29, 2011
I love that everyone drinks tea in Istanbul. All the time. And I love how tea shops transport take-out orders to customers at nearby businesses. Look at that ingenious device, a tray to carry four glasses (he’s just served one) on the ubiquitous red-smeared saucers plus a small dish of sugar cubes. Everywhere you look in busy sections of town (here in a crowded street behind the Spice Bazaar) you see men (never women) carrying these trays that are held by three “prongs” connected to a joining-point handle at the top. So much more genteel than a paper (or plastic!) bag filled with lidded styrofoam cups. No wonder Istanbul (and earlier Constantinople or Byzantium) has been a center of civilization for so many centuries.
November 28, 2011
Lunch at the Taberna Almendro 13 in the La Latina neighborhood (after we’d fled the gussied-up and sanitized nearby Mercado San Miguel) and this Madrid specialty is what all the locals were having. Huevos rotos con jamón: thinly sliced fried potatoes doused with a slightly cooked “broken” egg and some diced ham. And no wonder it’s a popular dish; it was terrific. Ham, eggs, potatoes...sounds like breakfast, no? Not in Spain. I was amazed at the reverential place the egg has on menus at every meal. It could be in the fabled tortilla española (an omelette-like cake of onions and potatoes, served whole, cut up as tapas or as a sandwich filling.) Or maybe expertly fried as an entree...the “incredible, edible egg” (as the old ad campaign used to say) is everywhere. And, come to think of it, so are potatoes and ham. No problem.
November 27, 2011
Little yellow things. That’s what these cookies are called in the Venetian dialect of Italian: zaleti. How do I know all this? I learned it from my friend Nick’s Great Italian Desserts book, the zaleti page of which carries the smears and other marks of honor that bear witness to my having made this recipe more times than I can count. Of course, my results for these Venetian cornmeal diamonds may not have the professional finish that Nick’s do (as he’ll be happy to remind me) but no one (else) seems to mind. I make them at Christmas time. I make them in summer. I make them when friends request them for their birthdays. All the time. Cornmeal, flour, lemon zest, sugar, eggs, butter, vanilla, salt, baking powder, raisins or currants. Nick’s recipe is all over the internet (search: zaleti nick malgieri) and is foolproof, yielding terrific cookies every time. Make a lot because everyone likes them (even the many internet bloggers who’ve lifted Nick’s recipe uncredited), so they tend to disappear quickly. And if you want to see how a professional does it, go to Nick’s website, click on "Videos" and watch him make them with Julia Child. She liked them, too.
November 26, 2011
Los Angeles at night always looks like Christmas to me. The strings of lights spread out to the horizon. The colors. The activity. Even though I snapped this photo off season from the heights of West Hollywood, it still suggests December decorations, no? Actually I was in LA only once at Christmastime. Maybe I harbored unrealistic expectations, but what a disappointment. Elaborate front-yard Santa panoramas on bright green lawns (or, worse, sun-scorched lawns.) Huge decorative candy canes criss-crossing entranceways, roasting in full, bright sun. It just seemed wrong. (Like below-the-equator residents in Australia or South Africa who go to the beach on December 25, midsummer for them. No!) When Jay and I lived in Beverly, MA, in a house whose kitchen/dining room/living room was mostly glass that gave onto woods, I strung small white lights throughout the whole room one December. They reflected back and forth in the glass over and over, multiplying each time. Jay walked into the room and said, “It looks like Los Angeles.” QED.
November 25, 2011
I chose Catania as my home base for travel through eastern Sicily. It had good bus and train connections, and plenty of cheap places to stay for a single. A walk from the train station, a check-in at a bare-bones pensione, and, of course, a stroll to the outdoor market. Where I saw this...a wonderful tableau of a butcher making sausage on the sidewalk outside his shop. This is varsity sausage-making, ingredients in the grinder on top, check. Pig’s intestine attached to the exit, check. Go! Soon, yards of salsiccia for sale, a meandering pile from the freshest of ingredients...and maybe just a little bit of cigarette ash thrown in for good measure. One of many such scenes in this lively and welcoming market. (The morning after I took this photo, there was a government crackdown on local Mafia chieftains less than a block away, gunfire and all.) I love Sicily.
November 24, 2011
Okra. Love it or hate it. No in between. I love it. Seen here in the French Market in New Orleans, its mucilaginous (aka slimy) qualities are one way the natives thicken their gumbos. (I had less success with said qualities when I sliced up some of the pods to make soup once.) I also like crisp pickled okra, which I’ve found both in Middle Eastern and Middle Western venues. The Armenian markets in my neighborhood feature both homemade and commercial varieties. And the Talk O’ Texas brand (”makes your mouth happy”) can be readily found in pickle-loving communities nationwide. I’ve put up jars of my own with iffy results. Hell, even Martha Stewart’s got a recipe for them. In Istanbul, baby okra is strung into “necklaces” and hung up to dry, later to be reconstituted in stews and other vegetable dishes. Closer to home, it’s still a mainstay of Southern and Southwestern buffets, breaded and deep-fried, the perfect accompaniment to chicken-fried steak. On the “hate it” side: My friend Nick makes a face whenever i mention okra (maybe he remembers that gooey soup referenced above) and always hopes his okra-lovin’ friend Nancy will forget to order it at the Manhattan Vietnamese restaurant they frequent. For the especially vehement, there are several “I Hate Okra” websites and even a Facebook group. Enjoy.
November 23, 2011
Who says the Greeks have no sense of humor? It seems the Greeks on the island of Rhodes do. I was just leaving a group of friends in a non-touristed part of the capital city, assuring them that I knew my way. And moments later, you guessed it, I was completely lost. In a dark maze of streets, no sidewalks, unable to read the map, traffic whizzing by. Finally, a glimpse of the sea. And I thought I’d just follow the coast to the harbor and my waiting boat. No such luck. I had wandered far afield and was on the other side of the island, nowhere near the harbor. Don’t panic. The ship won’t leave without you. Sure. So I retraced my steps, consulted the map more seriously...and started running. I soon found civilization, spied the boat on the horizon...and then saw this, a sign.
November 22, 2011
Ancient and well preserved. Not me. The Library of Celcus within the remarkably reconstructed and maintained ruins of Ephesus, once a major city of the Roman Empire, second in size and importance only to Rome during the time of Augustus. Just over a mile long from entrance to exit gates, the site was blessedly free of summer tour groups during our recent visit and made for a wonderful cloudy-morning walk. Roads, fountains, columns, theaters, markets, a gymnasium, even a public toilet...all part of a city layout that’s so well annotated with posted information that no tour guide is really necessary. Though there were plenty on whom we could eavesdrop from time to time. (Musical comedy fans will note that although Ephesus is the setting for Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse, we managed to control all impulses to break into song. Just saying.)
November 21, 2011
November 20, 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, 2011
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, 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, 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, 2011
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 stand 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, 2011
People sometimes ask me why I bother with Chowhound.com. 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.
November 14, 2011
When Jay and I walked into the small delicatessen-type shop in Kuşadası, I was first struck by the many barrels of different types of olives. Then by the kindness of the owner who came right over and offered us a piece of helva. And then, there among the cheeses in the case, a big tub of what looked like clotted cream. “Kaymak?” I asked, wondering if it was indeed Turkey’s wonderfully thick cream that they layer onto so many of their desserts. “Hayır,” answered the clerk shaking her head. "No." It was, she explained, Turkish yogurt. Sold! They filled a small container for me and I brought it back to the ship, intending to have it with fruit and nuts at breakfast the following morning. And here it is, rich, resplendent and thoroughly resistant to any attempts to stir it. (Photo taken after several fruitless tries.) Like butter, some might say. And so began my comparison taste tests of yogurt over the next few weeks through Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland. The winner? Nothing even came close to this unbelievably thick contender from our first stop in Asia Minor. Nothing.
November 13, 2011
Is Julius’ the oldest gay bar in New York? It claims to be. Also the oldest bar in Greenwich Village, serving up drink since 1864. And on a bad night, it looks as if many of the original patrons are still in attendance. I think Julius’ may have been the first gay bar I ever went to, back when I was in college in the late 1960s. (Or was it the Stonewall? One or the other.) I remember being terrified of going inside, practicing what I would order in advance, trying to act nonchalant. I worked my way up to the bar and asked the flamboyant bartender for an Old-Fashioned. (What made me choose that? Why didn’t I just go for a beer?) The bartender screamed to the crowd, “Oh, this one wants an Old-Fashioned! I guess she’s just an old-fashioned girl!” I was mortified. Years later, after attending Lily Tomlin’s opening night on Broadway, I popped in to this West 10th Street mainstay for a drink and realized I was in line behind the priest who was the headmaster of the Catholic prep school I’d attended. He got his drink, turned around, saw me, blushed and said, “Oh, well. I guess my secret is out.” “What secret?” I asked.
November 12, 2011
I have no idea who these guys are. Jay and I were visiting Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art one day and started to pose in front of the lobby’s installation-in-progress of Boston Globe pages (later whitewashed and hung with mirrored panels in many colors by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone.) These two charming copycats decided to do the same thing and gave me their camera so I could take a picture of them. When I was done, I shot them with my own camera, and here’s the result. I’ve started to imagine who they might be. (Friends, one of whom lives in Boston, the other in New York, they only get to see each other occasionally and make the most of their limited time together.) Part of the fun of visiting the ICA is the building itself, perched as it is over Boston’s harbor. Its oversized internal glass elevator serves up an amusement-park thrill as you ride to the exhibition galleries on the fourth floor. Even a simple stop at the gift shop is a creative experience. And, as you can see, the lobby offers an easy photo op. Cheese, guys.