March 31, 2011

Cacilhas, Lisbon. October, 2009

Ever since we’d had mariscadas at Trackside in Peabody, Massachusetts, we’d been jonesin’ for “the real thing” -- a complete seafood extravaganza at a Portuguese waterside restaurant. We got it. The Vale do Rio is one of the many casual places in Cacilhas, a short ferry ride across the River Tejo from Lisbon proper, a daily “commute” for many Lisboetas who live in this lower-priced, slower-paced suburb. Jay and I got an outdoor table, looked at the menu and ordered. (The waiter kindly indicated we’d requested too much; we were still not familiar with the size of Portuguese portions.) We settled on the “special mariscada dinner for two,” which came in escalatingly wonderful stages. First, a platter of green-shelled mussels, huge and beautiful. Then, a bowl of shrimp in butter and garlic. And finally, this mountainous serving of spiny lobster, langostinos and rock crab legs (as well as the crab’s shell stuffed with sauced crabmeat.) Lemons and napkins all around. By the time we were finished, everything was right with the world. A delicious, satisfying meal (at roughly a third of the cost in downtown Lisbon restaurants), a gracious waiter, a chat with some gregarious Australian women, a ferry back to the city glittering across the dark water and a walk to our hotel through now-familiar streets. The same again, please.

March 30, 2011

Rome. October, 1984

Near misses. In language, as in life, they can veer between the humorous and the dangerous. (When learning American Sign Language, I responded incorrectly to a question, and when I suggested that I was “close,” the teacher replied, “Yes, close the way ‘Please call me’ and ‘Please kill me’ are close.” Point taken.) Fortunately these slips of the tongue (foreign or otherwise) are rarely fatal. In Mallorca once, Jay’s mother ordered pañuelos tostados (toasted handkerchiefs) instead of panecillos (rolls) for breakfast. A friend wanted to tell some Italian neighbors that she had two sons (figli) and proudly announced, Ho due fichi (“I have two figs.”) In Paris, another friend confidently translated haricots (green beans) as “haircuts.” My favorite language missteps, however, come with an alarming frequency from my wonderful friend and earnest Italophile Patti, whose “greatest hits” of off-translations include (pictured) “The National Bank of Soap” (lavoro actually means “worker.”) And the Roman fried cheese specialty mozzarella in carozza (“carriage”) is more likely to be ordered by Patti as in carrozeria (“car repair shop.”) Please kill me.

March 29, 2011

New Orleans. March, 1991

Why am I so drawn to cemeteries? Whenever I travel, it seems I always wind up in at least one. In Alamos, Mexico, I spent a hot sunny morning traipsing through a small graveyard on the outskirts of town. In Paris, I sought out the tombs of François Truffaut and Edgar Degas in Montmartre. And Rome can often seem like one big burial ground. This is a memorial plot in one of the remarkable above-ground cemeteries of New Orleans. A much-visited grave, as it happens, for here (reportedly) lie the remains of Marie Laveau, famed Creole voodoo priestess whose followers and admirers still petition her for assistance by drawing three X’s on her tomb in hopes that her spirit will grant them a wish. Appropriately enough, the life of this Voodoo Queen of New Orleans is shrouded in mystery and folktales. She was a hairdresser for wealthy white clients. Or she wasn’t. Her daughter (same name) was also a voodoo practitioner (allegedly less powerful but with a better knack for publicity) and the two are often confused. She was reportedly sighted in the streets of the French Quarter long after her supposed demise was announced in the newspapers. But as anyone who’s been to NOLA knows, when it comes to voodoo, magic, spells and a lot of other things, truth can be stranger than fiction.

March 28, 2011

Zurich. June, 2007

I did not grow up in a household where breakfast was considered important. Sometimes on a Sunday morning, we’d stop at the Summit Bakery on our way home from church and get fresh rolls and donuts. That’s about it. When I grew up, the same standard applied with a real breakfast being something special, something to have while on vacation. Here’s a mighty special vacation breakfast at the splendid Hotel Storchen in Zurich. En route home from Istanbul, I had an overnight stop here with Nick -- just enough time for dinner with our friend Andreas, a traditional voyeuristic walk through the honky-tonk red-light district, a bracing early-morning run around the park-bordered lake and this sampling of local charcuterie, breads, jams and cheeses. The generous breakfast buffet was set up in a sunny, airy room with tables on an adjoining outside terrace from which we could see snow-capped mountains in the distance. The Storchen is somewhat more upscale than my usual choice of lodgings and it made for a very nice one-nighter in this, the “world’s most livable city.” Especially as I enjoyed several return trips to the buffet before we were finished.

March 27, 2011

Springfield, NJ. October, 2007

Meet my baby brother, Brien. Seen here in front of the home in which we grew up and in which he still lives. (I call him my baby brother even though he somehow managed to slowly surpass me in age; strange things can happen in The Garden State.) Our home was built in the late 1940s in a small development that had earlier been farmland. (When I was very young, there were still open fields and unbridged streams on land that had not yet been claimed.) Brien proudly upholds this agrarian tradition, raking, enriching the soil for his vegetables and flowers, and removing pesky horse chestnuts from the lawn as you can see him doing here. The house holds many memories for each of us. But as more homes, highways and other developments have encroached upon this town close enough to New York City so as to now become desirable, we’ve lost “the woods” within whose magical bounds our childhood imaginations took flight. Swinging vines, deep pools of brook water, wild plants like jack-in-the-pulpits that fascinated us no end. Brien had cultivated a wonderful example of one of these exotic plants in his garden until the time our father went on a weeding binge. That poor jack-in-the-pulpit, now just another memory.

March 26, 2011

Hudson, MA. January, 2010

One of the great things about living in the Bay State is the wide range of ethnic neighborhoods to be found from Boston outwards. A recent discovery: the Portuguese community in Hudson. Hailing not only from Portugal but also from Brazil and the Azores, the welcoming folks in this small town serve up their culture, their cuisine, their language to anyone who wants to appreciate them. Like me. So when some colleagues offered a lunch to mark my leaving “the corporation,” I suggested a Brazilian buffet nearby. Heidi and Stan seemed game, so off we went. It was simple and satisfying: fried plantains, saucy beans, savory rice dishes, unidentifiable meat stews. But best of all may have been our stop at Silva’s Bakery on the same block where we purchased some amazing rolls (crusty outside, moist crumb inside) and a dazzling assortment of pastéis with fillings that included bean, orange, almond and the flaky, black-topped, egg-rich-custard delight we’d loved so much in Lisbon, the pastel de nata. (As you can see, I bought two of those.) Good thing I snapped this photo relatively quickly, because these beauties disappeared very soon afterwards.

March 25, 2011

Tucson. May, 2005

There are so many reasons I love Tucson, none more than the heady mix of sacred and profane that blends so easily into the everyday life of this university town just an hour north of the Mexican border. For example, this video store that I pass every morning along my Congress Street running route. I have never seen anyone go in or out in all my years of watching. It sits across a lazy intersection from a heavily barred drive-thru liquor store, scene of occasional “situations.” In spite of a casual facelift, it still looks like the gas station it once was. Diego Rivera would smile, I think, at the miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe mural along its western wall (complete with a small milagro-filled commemorative shrine.) Then there’s that big VIDEOS boldly emblazoned mid-apparition as if to proclaim modern technology’s own miracle available on demand, right here, right now. In this dry land of rattlers and other serpents, even the snakey green garden hose seems biblically right at home. Oh, sure, the Arizona sun has taken its toll on the mural, fading it with each passing year since it was painted, until its now-pastel hues might seem more at home in Miami Beach than in the Southwest Sunbelt. No matter. The miracle remains.

March 24, 2011

Istanbul. June, 2007

I sometimes wonder why I love to travel alone. Yes, I enjoy the pleasure of a friend’s company at mealtimes and for occasional shared excursions, but the more foreign and exotic my destination, the more I treasure time spent solo. Maybe it’s because I like to immerse myself in the everyday life of the place I’m visiting in a way that tends to make companions impatient -- lingering in Montreal or Mexico supermarkets to see packaging in a foreign language, stopping by the Las Vegas or Miami Beach public libraries, sitting in a Lisbon or Segovia park to see how locals pass their idle time. In Turkey, I became fascinated by Muslim people’s behavior in mosques. Some would be silent and reverent. Others, especially those with young children, would refreshingly treat the vast interior as if it were their living room or the public square. Still more interesting to me were the outwardly secular (uniformed policemen, suited businessmen, et al.) entering and revealing their sacred selves in a personal, devotional way. For me, solo travel also erases the slate, allows me to be whoever I choose to be. No one knows me. One of my favorite memories is of a young man’s stopping me on Istanbul’s Istiklal Caddesi one evening to inquire (in Turkish) the time. When I showed him my watch, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were Turkish.” I wasn’t sorry at all.

March 23, 2011

North Truro, MA. August, 1977

Oh, dear. That hair! Here’s a souvenir of a time gone by, of something that no longer exists. I’m speaking, of course, of this wonderful sign that frequent long-time visitors to outer Cape Cod remember well. For the literal-minded, it signaled that drivers could veer left onto Rte. 6A and go through North Truro or stay on Rte. 6 and head directly to Provincetown, either selection getting you to your desired destination. For us, it was always straight ahead to Ptown ASAP. I was a New Jersey schoolteacher with summers off back then. And when my Boston-based friend Charles rented a group house in Wellfleet and, as one of his co-renters remarked, “invited his address book to come visit,” I did. Sadly, and for reasons I leave to Dr. Freud, my instant clicking with his friends didn’t sit well with Charles. Oh, well. The following summer I moved to Massachusetts on my own, began working at WGBH Boston, and fell in with lots of new friends who would change my life forever. For better. For worse. Either way.

March 22, 2011

Hollywood, CA. April, 2006

I can’t explain it. Don’t understand it. My beloved friend (and best art director/partner I’ve ever worked with) loves Doris Day. And so, on one of our working trips to Los Angeles, we had to stop for a photo op at Grauman’s (I still can’t call it by its new name, Mann’s) Chinese Theater, a mecca of Old Hollywood. While most of the tourists gathered around the prints of more predictable stars (Monroe, Bogart, Gable, Abbott and Costello), Mike headed straight for Miss D. (Is it because, like him, she loves animals so much? Because her frothy blonde working-girl romantic comedies strike a personal chord with him? Who knows?) Other moments from this California trip may have been deemed more “productive” vis-a-vis business, but none remains more memorable than this. We also took photos at Joan Crawford’s imprint (mimicking a shot I’d vamped for at the same sacred location in 1981) and along the “Walk of Stars” (where Mike posed over the five-pointer with which lookalike Kevin Spacey had been honored), but his tribute to Doris D. is still the best. (In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that he is also a big fan of Charo. Just saying.)

March 21, 2011

Siena, Italy. October, 1986

The Piazza del Campo, the expansive bricked open space in the center of Siena, was paved in a fishbone pattern in 1346, divided by ribs of travertine into nine equal fan-shaped sections to honor the nine Sienese leaders who guided the city to its peak of early splendor. One of the outstanding medieval squares in Europe, it is the site of the famed horse race, the Palio, each year. The air was a bit chilly this autumn morning, but the sun provided just enough warmth for locals to sit and chat, enjoy a coffee, catch up before the tour buses arrived. Though I’d briefly passed through Siena five years earlier with a friend, this time I was on my own, wandering at my leisure, even taking some meals in the cafeteria of the 13th-century university to make sure I had some good, cheap food and some animated company. Siena is home to the first “striped” churches I’d seen in Italy, towers banded in layers of black and white stone. It’s also the location of the Church of San Domenico where I’d found the chapel of Saint Catherine, one of two patron saints of Italy (the other is Francis of Assisi). So important is she that, due to popular demand, her head is buried in Siena, her body in Rome, other parts allegedly distributed throughout the country. I had not brought my dizionario with me when I visited San Domenico and had to write down some words to look up later. One such label, “pollice,” flanked a smallish, jeweled reliquary. Back in my room, I looked it up. “Thumb.”

March 20, 2011

A Esquina da Fé, Lisbon. October, 2009

Sometimes the simplest dishes are the best. Fresh ingredients prepared and presented in an uncomplicated, straightforward way. Almost “home cooking” in its easy, honest goodness. Jay and I had sought out this small neighborhood restaurant that we’d heard about on some internet chatboard. Unassuming and removed from the tourist scene, it had about a dozen tables and seemed patronized by guys -- single men, buddies, workers, men who wanted a beer or two, to watch the soccer game on TV, to eat a solid meal with like-minded companions. Like us. We were welcomed by the owner and patiently walked through the simple, Portuguese-only menu. (The chef, seen here, whose portrait taken 25 years earlier in his same kitchen hung on the wall, sang as he cooked. A good sign.) To start, Jay had grilled squid (perfect) and I had the homestyle sopa à alentejana I’d read about: rich chicken stock, some cilantro, slices of bread, an egg broken on top. Simple, wonderful. A grilled fish for Jay, and a half order (their advice, huge!) of cozido à portuguesa for me: a big bowl of meats, sausages, potatoes, vegetables, broth. It was our first real introduction to the massive size of Portuguese portions. As we left, handshakes all around, some pictures taken, an enthusiastic request to come again the following night, which we considered because of the great food, the warm atmosphere. Instead, we went “bistro,” which was fine, but lacked the simple, honest, personal appeal of A Esquina da Fé.

March 18, 2011

Yellowstone National Park, WY. July, 1992

When I announced to my parents in 1969 that I was going to spend the summer in Europe and that I’d (wisely) already made all the arrangements, my mother (predictably) said, “See America first.” Too late, Mom. Anyway, it took me more than 20 years before I started to explore our own nation’s treasures, thanks to an invitation from a Cambridge friend who was summering in his home state of Montana. And while we’re friends no longer, we had a great time together back then, driving south from Billings, Montana, along the Beartooth Highway, past Red Lodge, through Yellowstone and on into the Grand Teton National Park, where we stayed in a log cabin, swam beneath the snow-capped peaks and had biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Here in Yellowstone, on the walkways leading past the so-called Old Faithful geyser, we met a wonderful family from Milan. I was tempted to ask the mother if she’d admonished her children to see Italy first.

March 17, 2011

Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland. May, 1992

My father nursed my mother through a debilitating illness at the end of her long life. And after she died, I waited six months and then asked him if he’d like to take a trip to Ireland. He’d never been out of the country (except for his WWII posts in Japan and New Guinea) and I thought he might want to visit his own mother’s birthplace and some of the locations he’d been singing about for years (ex. Galway Bay.) He did. So I made the arrangements and off we went. Driving south from Dublin and then up the west coast, we approached the famed Cliffs of Moher, at which point my father announced a fear of heights (“I’m afraid I’ll jump off”) and a desire to return to our B&B. He had a point; the cliffs are some 700 feet high and only the flimsiest of cordons is there to prevent you from falling straight down to the Atlantic Ocean below. Delivering my father to the B&B, I soon returned to the cliffs where I encountered this fearless brother and sister, fresh from church where they’d just received their First Holy Communion. Almost 20 years have passed. I wonder who they grew up to be. And if they still go to Communion.

March 16, 2011

Santiago de Compostela, Spain. October, 2009

Fruit in the United States is not good. At least that’s what a sidewalk vendor told me in Agrigento in 1984. She was selling the most beautiful pears along a stepped, impromptu street market in that small southern Sicilian town. And although she seemed unlikely to have ever left her home, she didn’t hesitate to finish my “La frutta negli stati uniti...” with a brisk “non è buona!” Actually, I think she’s correct, and that’s why whenever I visit Europe, I always try to find some fresh fruit, free from the curse of mass-production, unripe harvesting, cross-country shipping. The bosc-like pear she sold me back then was juicy and flavorful and remains in memory to this day. Unlike the rock-hard or mealy ones I find negli stati uniti. The woman above, in the central market in Santiago de Compostela, may not have been so opinionated about American produce, but she was proud of her own. And rightly so. We bought bosc pears again (to go with our Cabrales blue cheese and local Galician corn bread for lunch) and they dripped all over us as we savored their remarkable taste and texture. Buena.

March 15, 2011

Worcester, MA. Winter, 1986

The Boulevard Diner has been at 155 Shrewsbury Street since 1932, though its current structure is a classic Worcester Lunch Car manufactured nearby in 1936. (Worcester was the diner-manufacturing capital of the world at that time.) “The Bully,” as locals know it, features wooden booths, counter seating for around 10 customers, stainless steel and tile, and it stays open all the time (OK, it closes for six hours on Sundays. Sue me.) And, as you can see, it serves up the kind of welcoming fare that has kept people coming back for more through the years. Or at least it kept Dali, Patti, Bernard and me coming back for more on that cold winter’s day. Look at the choices! How can you decide? (Fortunately The Bully does not serve bread pudding as that would have caused me to disgrace myself even more than I did, forcing me to order two desserts as bread pudding and grapenut pudding are both mandatory when they appear on diner menus.) I haven’t been back since, though I’ve driven by (as a passenger; if I had been the driver, a quick stop would have been in the cards for sure.) How about everything on the menu to go (15 EXTRA) with POT & VEG?

March 14, 2011

San Gimignano, Italy. October, 1980

Sharpen your pencils. There’s something about the onset of autumn that always makes me feel good. Maybe it’s the former schoolteacher in me, the tendency toward organization and a tightening of the laziness brought on by summer’s heat and humidity. Even in this medieval Tuscan hilltown I was drawn toward the local schoolbus, appropriately sized for this tiny walled hamlet not far from Siena, still relatively uncrowded when I visited some 30 years ago. I remember a man selling bottles of homemade Vernaccia wine from his open garage. I wonder what changes three more decades of tourism have wrought. I love and am amused by the fact that San Gim is sometimes called “the Manhattan of Italy” because of its 14 towers, though these famed structures were mostly built in the 12th century rather than the 20th. Originally founded by Etruscans and later named after a bishop who defended the town from Attila’s Huns, the town has a rich history and has now been recognized as an official UNESCO World Heritage site. I suspect that the schoolbus and its inhabitants haven’t changed too much as a result of this distinction.

March 13, 2011

Montreal. October, 2005

Our onetime almost-annual vacations to Montreal usually took place in October, and so our trips to the various open-air markets there were filled with the bounty of autumn harvests. One of our favorite small, neighborhood markets not far from our Le Simone B&B is the Marché St-Jacques at the corner of Rue Ontario and Rue Amherst. Each year that we’ve visited, they’ve held a contest: Guess the weight of a huge pumpkin and win a $50 (Canadian) gift certificate. For one year’s contest that we still recall fondly, the sign maker must have been a poet, for his French text (“Oh, belle citrouille...”) took on the metaphoric magic of direct-address personification: “Oh, beautiful pumpkin, how much do you weigh?” Just one of the many unexpected and charming touches to grace this lovely market in this lovely city.

March 12, 2011

Annisquam, MA. May, 2010

Do you like kids? Meet Lulu. She and her brother Yuk-Yuk are two baby goats that we met recently when our friends Charlene and Steve adopted them to keep their older goat Pepi company. (After Pepi’s female companion had passed away, he cried for two months until these youngin’s appeared.) Jay was too reserved to hold the little critters, but I wasn’t, and Steve snapped this photo. As I was cradling her, Lulu dug her face into the the crook of my sleeve and at one point began to nibble tentatively on my shirt pocket. I loved it. This was the first day they’d been separated from their mother and they were a bit mouthy, but I’m told that they have since settled in and calmed down, and that the three goats now sometimes even nap together. Charlene and Steve live on a steep piece of rocky land in this Gloucester neighborhood that gives onto the Annisquam River, and they began raising goats not for the milk, not to make cheese, but as a way to keep the invading brush from overgrowing their property. It seems to be working.

March 11, 2011

Paris. December, 2005

Paris. City of Lights. City of Eating. Before I’d set off on this winter trip, I did my homework and had made a list of various recommended cheese shops to visit. The hallowed Barthélémy (Catherine Deneuve shops here) at 51 Rue de Grenelle was a small gem, its bounty displayed to suggest a haughty superiority that carries over into its customer service. (When I asked a saleswoman in French if she could help me, her reply was “Perhaps.” She slowly warmed and made some recommendations, all of which I later enjoyed in my hotel room along with some bread from nearby Poilâne.) But the real sampler’s delight is La Fromagerie 31 at 64 Rue de Seine. There in a small cafe attached to the shop, Nick and I were able to taste platters prepared for each of us, a total of 14 excellent addition to our special order of a Vacherin. We were asked first if we liked blue cheeses. Yes. When the plates arrived, we were kindly guided to start at the top and work our way around clockwise, the cheeses increasing in pungency. Comté, Reblochon, Camembert, Pont l’Évêque, Livarot, wonders all. (La Fromagerie 31 offers sampling plates of five, seven or nine cheeses.) A little soup, a little salad, bread, cheese -- our perfect lunch as a rare Parisian snow began to fall.

March 10, 2011

Pemaquid Light, ME. September, 1986

Jay’s parents vacationed in Maine for years before finally building a summer home there on McCurda Pond when he was in graduate school. And that’s where I first met them. I knew that Jay’s father was a cartoonist (he penned the strip Tiger), but I didn’t know that his mother had worked at Vogue (he casually mentioned this to my great excitement as we approached the house) as a photographer’s assistant. When I asked his mother if I might’ve known any of the photographers she’d assisted, she calmly said, “Probably. Cecil Beaton?” (His stylish mother never quite adjusted to Maine after her New Jersey upbringing, claiming that the local poultry man spoke in such a way that she couldn’t tell if he was saying “roaster” or “rooster.”) Over the several occasions we visited them, a routine developed: buying blueberry pies from Dot’s roadside stand, driving to Round Pond for lobsters, sometimes heading to Pemaquid Point to see the lighthouse and climb on the rocks, beaten by the rough Maine sea. On this trip, the fog was so thick we didn’t risk a climb. But we were treated to a misty, evocative early-afternoon scene that suggests some of the wildness early settlers encountered here before “summer people” arrived “from away.”

March 9, 2011

Beyoğlu, Istanbul. June, 2007

Which is more enjoyable? Dondurma, the distinctive ice cream found all over Turkey? Or the theatrical shenanigans enacted by its beckoning vendors? Uniformly dressed in gold-embroidered red vests, the sellers (always men, it seems) churn the sticky stuff with long-handled scoops and then perform a variety of tricks -- up-ending the handle and pretending to drop the cone (it remains stuck to the ice cream) and so on -- mainly to the delight of tourists and mainly German tourists at that. Sticky? Yes, Turkish dondurma is much chewier and more solid (some varieties require a knife and fork) than ice cream found elsewhere owing to the inclusion of two unusual ingredients: salep (a flour made from ground orchid root) and mastic (a resin also found in chewing gum and other Turkish sweets; its main characteristic informs the English word “masticate.”) Maraş dondurması (abbreviated on this young man’s sign), from the Kahramanmaraş region in Southeastern Turkey, is a variety that contains more salep than usual making it much tougher and stickier than what you might be expecting. Not to everyone’s liking, dondurma is worth trying once if only to experience the qualities that distinguish it from other ice creams. And to experience the charms of delightful vendors such as this one on the Istiklal Caddesi.

March 8, 2011

South Tucson. April, 2010

On the Dallas-to-Tucson flight, I was seated next to an arguing couple who kept at it for almost two hours. When we landed, she finally said, “Let’s go get a hot dog.” Oh, no! I thought I was the only gringo who’d heard about Sonoran hot dogs, the latest local fast-food rage. Within moments, my beloved friend David (himself a vegan!) had kindly whisked me off to El Güero Canelo for a sampling. (Actually, I ordered a Sammy Dog, distinguished, according to the posted menu, by “two winers.”) Hot dogs estilo sonora: a frankfurter, wrapped in bacon, topped with beans, salsa, mustard and mayo, cradled in a football-shaped soft roll. Pretty darned good. So good, in fact, that I ventured into South Tucson the next day on my way back from Mexico to try the fare at BK Carne Asada y Hot Dogs. You can see what I ordered (good thing I speak a little Spanish): two hot dogs estilo sonora, with all the fixin’ I topped with chopped black olives and the other with avocado mayo. Grilled pimientos on the side, por favor. I’d ordered a Diet Coke, but how could I say no when asked, “¿Pepsi está bien?

March 7, 2011

The Kasbah, Tangier. November, 2010

Come with me to the you-know-where. Eschewing the guided tour organized by the cruise line (in spite of many warnings that Tangier was not a place to wander alone), off we wandered. And it was great. Or at least I thought it was. Jay, who had previously been a-scared of even going to sophisticated Istanbul, blanched when our cruise itinerary changed and suddenly included this Moroccan port. Still, he was a good sport and, I think, trusted that maybe I knew what I was doing. What I was doing was getting lost in the medina, the old Arab section of the city, criss-crossed by dark alleyways and twisty passages that led to nowhere but dead ends. Trying (mostly) successfully to bypass aggressive beggars and “guides” of all ages, we arrived (miraculously) in the fabled Kasbah at the top. And a bit later on our way down again, we found ourselves in a small enclosed square, a woman filling her water jug at a pump in its center. Five paths led from the square and I pointed to one and, hoping she spoke Morocco’s second language, asked, “Fermé?” She pointed to all five in succession and said, “Fermé. Fermé. Fermé. Fermé. Non ferme.” We took the obvious choice and continued without any further snags.

March 6, 2011

Las Vegas. January, 1992

When it comes to refrigerator magnet souvenirs, I have two favorites: the Pope John Paul II magnets that I bought from the Filippini nuns who run the gift shop at the Vatican, and the ones I bought of “the highest paid pianist in the world” at the Liberace Foundation and Museum in Las Vegas. Each is laughable and vulgar in its own way. (Though the papal magnet pales in comparison to the JP2 bottle opener I bought on the same visit.) I declined the entry fee to the Liberace Museum (now sadly closed), figuring I didn’t need to see any more glitz than the gift shop afforded me. The building itself seems to have been a former drive-thru bank in a strip mall (where I also saw slot machines near the supermarket checkout registers and showgirls in high heels, sequins and pasties buying groceries -- Cheerios! -- at 10am on a Tuesday morning), somehow fitting in its way. The walk to the museum (I was the only pedestrian as is often the case) along East Tropicana Avenue took me past trailer parks, long-closed stripper bars, sleepy yard sales, an empty Jack-in-the Box and the University of Nevada campus. All this within blocks of the glittering hotels and casinos along The Strip. And it’s this unpredictably weird mix that’s exactly what I love about “Fabulous Las Vegas.”

March 5, 2011

ICA, Boston. October, 2008

When is a foam coffee cup not a foam coffee cup? Maybe when artist Tara Donovan takes thousands of them and, without altering them in any way, places them together in such a formation on the ceiling of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art that they suggest a threatening storm cloud. Visiting her show was part of our stay-at-home vacation that autumn, one of the several local events we took time to appreciate as perhaps only out-of-towners normally do. On the chilly morning following our “chef’s whim” tasting dinner at Craigie Street Bistrot (sauteed coxcombs, anyone?), we walked to Harvard Square, Red-Lined it to South Station, then hopped the Silver Line to the ICA, our first time there. The harbor-hugging building itself is pretty spectacular, and it was fun to run into director Jill Medvedow, an old pal from a “previous life,” but Donovan’s show was the magical highlight. The sculptress takes mass numbers of single ordinary objects -- pins, toothpicks, plastic drinking cups, paper plates, plastic straws, tape, mylar strips -- and arranges them into huge self-standing cubes or spheres or hazy walls or floor “landscapes” that make you stop and look and wonder.

March 4, 2011

Piazza Navona, Rome. May, 1988

“This is Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.” When Nick asked me to come along as production assistant on his trek through Italy to research his Great Italian Desserts cookbook, of course I said si. I’d been to Italy three times before and knew some of the ropes -- the ins and outs of train travel, hotel bookings, maps, and several dozen of the thousands of Italian bureaucracies. I was working in public broadcasting at the time, and it was Jay who actually suggested I call up NPR to get in touch with Rome correspondent Sylvia Poggioli. Sylvia graciously agreed to meet me for coffee and we hit it off immediately. She told me about press protocol at the Vatican (no one is allowed to ask the Pope a question directly; you can only speak through one of his supernumeraries, etc.), about how she’d hidden all her jewelry and cash in her car when she went to interview the head of a gypsy clan outside Rome, and about some tips on her favorite restaurants in the city. When she and her husband came to Cambridge, MA, as fellows at the Kennedy School of Government not long afterward, they attended a little book party I threw for Great Italian Desserts. Sylvia brought a visiting Italian friend, and Nick took one look at her, then drew me aside to whisper, “She’s wearing REAL Chanel.”

March 3, 2011

Segovia, Spain. October, 2009

When you go to Segovia, do it as a day trip from Madrid. Take the 8:30am high-speed AVE train from Estación de Chamartín, and you’ll get to this fabled town just as it’s slowly waking up. The tour buses will not have arrived yet. The cobbled streets within the walled city will be mercifully empty and quiet, filled with the smells of coffee and freshly baked bread. The train will leave you at the snazzy new AVE station just outside the city from which a cheap and frequent eight-minute bus ride will take you within two blocks of where you want to be. Then you can stroll leisurely past all of the beauty at your own pace, winding up at the Alcázar at the peak of the town. That’s what Columbus did on the day he went to petition Ferdinand and Isabella when they ruled the Spanish Empire from here way back when. And look at this magical misty view you’ll not find if you arrive later in the day. No wonder Uncle Walt modeled his Disneyland castle after the Alcázar. After our morning in Segovia, we had a picnic lunch in one of its parks, then took a bus to Ávila to pay our respects to Saint Teresa (another one of those saints whose body parts are distributed reverently among several different sacred locations) before heading back to Madrid via a lazy, long, nap-enducing train journey through the Castilian countryside.

March 2, 2011

New York, NY. May, 2010

My friend Monica tells me she loves that I take pictures of the food when I travel. Well...yeah. Though the fact that she mentions it reminds me that not everyone does this. Sadly. (If you need some encouragement, aside from a lovely visual record of memorable meals, consider this incentive: The manager may think you’re a food reporter and be kinder to you, filling your water glass with greater frequency.) My lunch this day was at Momofuku, the always excellent noodle bar on 1st Avenue at E. 10th Street. I enjoyed (and photographed) their acclaimed steamed pork buns (an oval of light dough wrapped over pork belly with hoisin sauce and cucumber slices) and the Momofuku ramen (a perfect bowl of thin wheat noodles in broth with sliced fish cake, shredded pork, some greens, more pork belly, sheets of dried seaweed and a lightly poached egg.) Just what I needed. Then, heading back to the West Side along 10th Street, I finally stopped for some ice cream at Sundaes and Cones (between 3rd and 4th Avenues), a place whose curious and inventive flavors I’ve long admired -- green tea, corn, taro, mango, red addition to their takes on basic flavors you’d expect in an ice cream shop. My selection: sesame. Made from toasted black sesame seeds, this rich, flecked, gray treat was a terrific way to end an extraordinary meal.

March 1, 2011

Kadiköy, Istanbul. June, 2007

Why does the food in Istanbul taste so very, very good? Hint: fresh local ingredients, seen in all their abundant splendor at outdoor markets like this one. Local, ripe fruit. Honey. Vegetables to please even the pickiest Turkish chef. And greens? At Doğa Balik, a wonderful rooftop fish restaurant that we found in Cihangir (and ate at during a spectacular passing thunderstorm one night), their meze offerings include more than a dozen kinds of greens, prepared to show off the special distinctions of each. Those greens could easily have come from this woman at the Kadiköy market. Growing, gathering, cleaning, packing and transporting them by hand, she comes to the city from her country home twice a week with just about every kind of roughage imaginable, from exotic lettuces to omega-rich purslanes and everything in between. Plus some scallions, some figs, some tiny unripe pears for pickling -- this lady has a devoted following who will only buy their greens from her. Stewed, mixed with yogurt or eaten raw, many of her garden treasures haven’t yet found their way into the American food consciousness. But if history is any indication, they will.