Cozy and chic. Great food, terrific ambience, wonderful people. This was my first trip to Fonda, Chef Roberto Santibañez’s truly Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. Wildly popular since it opened in the summer of 2009, Fonda was tops on my list of places to try during my birthday visit to NYC. It’s now tops on my list, period. Roberto, who had been executive chef at Rosa Mexicano in an earlier life, finally has a free hand to do exactly what he wants here and it shows. Beautifully prepared and presented urban Mexican comida like duck zarape (braised duck-filled soft corn tortillas with roasted tomato-habanero cream sauce), pork adobo (braised pork shoulder served with ancho chile sauce, black beans and warm corn tortillas), fish and seafood specials and other contemporary takes on the food of his native Mexico City. There are always changing seasonal offerings (I had some terrific pulled-chicken enchiladas with a dark and flavorful mole poblano one night) and his justly acclaimed guacamole, brought to the table in the molcajete in which it’s freshly made to order along with hand-pressed tortillas, chips and pasilla de Oaxaca salsa. My birthday entree? Carne asada con hongos, a grilled marinated skirt steak with a mushroom cream sauce, served with honey mashed sweet potatoes and quick-sauteed spinach. Mmmm. No chimichangas here, folks. (Mexican food all this week on Sandy Leonard Snaps. ¿Tienes hambre?)
July 30, 2011
I’m glad I have a picture (albeit not a particularly good one) of this, the most surreal day of my professional life. There’s my beloved friend Mike on the left, watching the Inauguration Day television coverage with our colleague Jesse in a conference room near all our cubicles. Why surreal? Because as the cheers and excitement rose from the Obama well-wishers in Washington, DC, the corporation where we were employed was phoning dozens of our colleagues, summoning them to their managers’ offices, laying people off until some departments, like ours, were reduced by up to twenty percent. A telephone would ring in someone’s cube...and shock waves would go through both them and those around them. Those fingered were supervised as they hurriedly packed their belongings and were ushered out the door. Those who remained did so in an almost underwater state of slow motion as rumors flew all around. When the dust cleared, there were many tears, many whisperings, many friends gone. The television crowds continued to cheer.
July 29, 2011
Look at this handsome Turkish devil, hawking his wares in the alleys of Istanbul on a warm late-spring evening. Couples amble by, on their way to or from dinner at any number of snug little neighborhood spots. Street musicians here and there. See the mussel-seller there in the background, shellfish and lemons at the ready should anyone crave a snack. It’s a welcome tradition, these calm and passive salesmen, never aggressive, often amusing. And with Beyoğlu nightlife in this neighborhood extending into the wee hours toward dawn, with more and more raki being drunk on patios and in restaurants and clubs nearby, who knows? A surprising number of people may somehow reason that they can’t get on without an illuminated headband of devil’s horns. And so this charmer returns night after night, smiling in the dark, proffering a handful of wickedness.
July 28, 2011
When I took my father on a vacation to Ireland after my mother had died, my patience steadily eroded and I thought I would go crazy from all the noise he made. At best, it was singing. Raised in a big Irish family, he knew all the songs. And he sang each and every one of them as I drove from Dublin to Waterford, from Doolin to Lisdoonvarna. The song he sang the most: “Galway Bay.” “If you ever go across the sea to Ireland, then maybe, at the closing of your day....” over and over and over. So when we finally arrived in Galway and settled into our B&B, I suggested that he and I go down to check out the fabled inlet. When we got there, he turned to me and said, “What’s the big deal? It’s not so great.” That’s my father. Still, after all that singing, I thought a picture was required. And here it is.
July 27, 2011
Every November 1, All Saints Day, I think of my friends Antonio and Roberta (shown here with Lupo, their gentle, pasta-loving dog), a couple back when this photo was snapped, living in a wonderful farmhouse just outside Lucca. Tutti Santi in Italy is the day, I was told, that “everyone goes to the cemetery.” (I remember planning a country restaurant visit in Italy on November 1 six years earlier, and my Roman hosts charted their route to avoid getting anywhere near a cemetery. They knew.) Antonio and Roberta invited me along on their cemetery visit. Any trepidation about respecting proper decorum I may have had vanished when Roberta came to the car with a picnic basket, jam-packed Italian-style, wearing a Betty Boop T-shirt with the English legend on it: Let’s Get Physical! I had a feeling this was to be no ordinary cemetery visit. It wasn’t. It resembled a family party. People were sitting on graves, eating antipasti, pizza, pastries, elaborate meals, you name it. Laughter and screaming, kids running around being kids. I loved the whole thing so much. It taught me more about Italy and Italians than just about anything else I’d experienced.
July 26, 2011
My beloved friend Simon is an artist in Tucson. Among his many public-art contributions, his magical Diamondback Bridge downtown stands out. Crossing six lanes of traffic on Broadway, the pedestrian “snake bridge” is a wonderful addition to the landscape and personality of this hip town. Each time I visit the bridge, there are always parents and children, equally delighted by the whimsicality of it all. It lights up gently at night. Its yellow eyes glow. The sidewalk within the patterned bridge is incised and tinted in a diamondback design; when it emerges from the fanged mouth it suggests a forked tongue. Why, there’s even a raised tail at the rear and a motion-activated sound device to produce a rattle. Simon planned this project for some five years, working with city panels, funding sources, neighborhood groups and engineers, simplifying his original plans, retaining its spirit of fun and identity. I’ve been visiting this bridge since it debuted in 2002 and I have yet to find a way to snap a photo that captures it fully. Maybe that’s the way magic should be. Thank you, Simon.
July 25, 2011
In Berkeley even the sidewalks sing. And sing so beautifully. Allen Ginsberg is here. So is Shakespeare. And Bertolt Brecht. And Sappho. And this lovely, simple Ohlone song, too. It was a beautiful late morning in early November that I chanced upon these poems in concrete, stopped, read, snapped, moved on enriched. The Berkeley Poetry Walk, installed in 2003 along Addison Street in an effort to “revitalize” downtown, is made up of 128 two-foot-square cast-iron panels (coated with a porcelain enamel that will develop an aged patina over time), each weighing 55 pounds and each bearing a poem with a connection to the city. Some are by residents (Ginsberg, Gertrude Stein and the Ohlone Indians who once lived on the grounds where the city now stands), some whose link is more subtly implied. The choices were made by former US Poet Laureate Robert Haas, who observed, “Urban spaces are full of language. There is, if anything, too much of it....” What a great idea, then, to edit it down to this beautiful selection. Take a walk and encounter a new poem every few steps. Slow down.
July 24, 2011
Yes, it’s filled with tourists just offloaded from nearby buses. But since early Ottoman times, it’s been Istanbul’s central market for spices and other goods, many originally from Egypt, explaining its alternate name, the Eqyptian Bazaar. Flavors of tea, of chili, of traditional candies and sweets (including the prominently labeled and clearly tourist-aimed Viagra.) The charming young Turk barely seen at the right of the photo told me that because he deals with foreign travelers all the time, he’s learned seven languages. In his perfect English, he explained to me (with tastings) the differences among several types of chili peppers (mild, hot, ground to a fine powder, etc.), and I bought four kinds to bring home. My favorite: Urfa chili, a smoked, black, coarsely ground pepper that I sprinkle on yogurt or warm hummus as a meze offering stateside. I’ve never found this exact chili (dried in the Turkish sun for a week, wrapped and sweated each night to give develop its distinctive high oil content and smoky flavor) here in the USA, and as my generous supply is running low, I guess I’ll just have to pay this chap and this wonderful market another visit again very soon.
July 23, 2011
Two things I try to be aware of when I travel. Are you allowed to take photos in the museums? (Mostly yes, without flash; some museums, like those in Cairo, charge you to bring a camera inside.) When are the museums free? (Varies. Madrid’s Prado is free to all most evenings and Sunday; Paris’s Musée d’Orsay has a more complicated policy, of course. Check local listings.) Admission to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesdays from 4pm to 9:45pm is by “voluntary contribution,” which for many means “free.” Such MFA freedom allows an hour or so to look at one or two things without the burden of the normal $22 admission fee. For example, on this afternoon I sampled the “Avedon: Fashion, 1944-2000” exhibit (Suzy Parker, Dovima, China Machado, Jean Shrimpton, Penelope Tree, Twiggy), a show of Japanese tattoo paintings, a moment with the Eqyptian mummies, a walk through the Catalonian chapel. One hour and fifteen minutes of visual delight, accompanied by the pleasure of eavesdropping on many foreign visitors speaking a lovely mix of Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese. Gratis.
July 22, 2011
When we left Santiago de Compostela this Saturday morning, it was shrouded in misty fog, a bit of drizzle, the damp chill of early autumn in Galicia. Almost miraculously, as the bus headed south from Vigo and crossed the border into Portugal, the sun came out, bright and warm. A sign of good things to come. The first, our stop in Braga. Though the guidebooks and online sites indicated there were lockers to store our luggage at the Braga bus station, they’re weren’t. So we carried it the few blocks to the tourist office to inquire. A wonderful young man told us they were just closing for lunch but we could leave our heavy bags with them as long as we picked them up by 5pm closing time. Welcome to Portugal. And off we went to catch the bus to the Santuário Bom Jesús do Monte, Braga’s #1 attraction just outside of town. Up, up, up the double switchback stairs, up past the grottos representing the Stations of the Cross, up to the basilica at the very top, which houses a number of three-dimensional tableaux of religious/historical scenes...as well as a dolorous statue of the Blessed Virgin with seven full-size swords piercing her heart. Braga, we were told, is the most religious and conservative spot in the country. Yes, indeed. That afternoon, we took the train further south to the somewhat looser university town of Coimbra.
July 21, 2011
I love this picture of Jay, taken on some business-related outing. We live in what’s sometimes been sarcastically called “a fishing town that ran out of fish.” (Or had them taken away by increased government restrictions.) And because so many fishermen live in Gloucester, there really is no decent fish store because there aren’t enough customers to sustain one. (I once went into a fishmonger's shop in nearby Rockport and asked for bluefish and the owner pointed down the street to the beach and said, “Go catch one yourself.”) Odd that we wind up having to go to a supermarket (or wangle our way into a wholesale outlet, or rely on a fishing neighbor) to find decent fresh fish. Not this day though. Jay caught this beautiful bluefish, had it cleaned, ate it. I told him he looked so happy in this photo snapped by a colleague. He told me, “I was scared to death.”
July 20, 2011
October seems a perfect time to visit this lovely city. It’s still warm enough to stroll around in light clothing even at night. The early mornings are crisp and perfect for a nice, long run to investigate the city as it’s waking up. (I found neighborhoods near athletic fields and the university that I never would have come across in my normal walks through the centro.) The summer crowds have gone home, so there are no lines at museums and restaurants. And it’s not blisteringly hot as I’m told it is in July and August. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and, once we got settled at our NH hotel on Calle de José Abascal, we walked south toward the Prado, which offers free admission on Sundays as well as on weekday evenings. How civilized. In a park along the way, these two madrileñas, chatting and smoking under the watchful eye of a señorita on an exhibition poster. Inside, we decided to find just one painting and enjoy it: Las Meninas by Velasquez. Then on our way we went, lured by the siren song of fried calamari sandwiches at one of our favorite places, El Brillante.
July 19, 2011
I love waking up early in a new city and running the streets, the ports and parks, seeing awakening neighborhoods in a way that few tourists do. Running through the Luxembourg Gardens, under the Eiffel Tower, all around the empty Louvre entrance court, long before Parisians head to work. Or taking the J-tram from central San Francisco out to the Pacific, then running back through Golden Gate Park. I’ve seen many wonderful places in this comfortable, exhilarating way: Albuquerque, Istanbul, Barcelona, Lisbon, so many. Perhaps the oddest “running route” I’ve followed was in Tangier. Getting off a cruise ship in the storied city’s large port complex, Jay and I realized that our shorts and T-shirts were inappropriate for a downtown jog (especially on the eve of a major Islamic holiday), so we stayed within the walls of the port, past guards up on the breakwater and merchants setting up below. One guard shouted to me in English, “Take your hands down.” What? Seems he was a runner, too, commenting on my form. He later showed me a photo of himself in a Spanish half-marathon (and later still came to our rescue when a pesty local “guide” refused to take “no” for an answer.)
July 18, 2011
Sometimes rep is all you need. And maybe a little street cred. I was always amazed that Vincent Price could one minute look and behave like the elderly man he was (as seen here mugging with one of his two dogs in his garden), and the next minute pull himself together to become a “movie star” to speak with a fan who might suddenly appear. Once we were in Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum for a show of Dutch still lifes, and a man came over to him to say he looked like Vincent Price. “Yes,” he replied, “people tell me that all the time.” But the story I like best is one he told me about returning to his room at NYC’s Algonquin Hotel in the early 1970s when that neighborhood was dicey after dark. Some muggers approached him and demanded his cash. He transformed into his frightening screen persona and said, “Do you know who I am? I’m the scariest man in the world!” “He is, man,” one of the thugs hastily warned his band, “Let’s get the f*ck out of here.” And they did.
July 17, 2011
My “best friend” Doris was visiting from New Jersey, and Dali decided we should drive to some beaches north of Boston to show her a Yankee New England coastal experience. Of course, Dali’s dog Harry came along, and I snapped this cloudy afternoon photo of the two of them, together as always, and as they always will be remembered. In September, 1978, when I was moving from my temporary stay with Dali in her North End Boston apartment to my own place in nearby Charlestown, we stopped at a supermarket parking lot...and an abandoned dog appeared. Dali checked around, summed up the situation, and loaded her frightening new pet into the car. Into my lap, if I recall correctly. From then on, and for years, they were inseparable. Almost until their deaths, which were just months apart. Jay still remembers running into Dali following a concert on the Boston Common and her saying, “It was great. Harry conducted.” Jay was confused, understandably, until he realized she was referencing Boston Pops conductor Harry Ellis Dickson, a family friend with whom she had first-name privileges. Still, the alternative is interesting to consider.
July 16, 2011
I love to go to markets in every place I visit. Yes, it’s frustrating not to always have a kitchen at my disposal so that I can prepare all the beautiful ingredients on display. But most times the visual assortment is so dazzling that I’m still satisfied. And the more “foreign” the country and the cuisine, the more interesting it proves to be. Not long ago, when my friend Sandra mentioned that she was thinking of making a recently found recipe for rose petal jam, I was reminded of this small market in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu neighborhood on a sunny Sunday morning in early June. The first time I’d seen rose petals sold by the kilo in any market anywhere. Beautiful and surprising and shown off in a box draped with grape leaves. Also for sale elsewhere throughout the same market, purslane, the “weed” that, as I write this, is taking over the gardens of New England, riding on the heels of our winter/spring heavy rainfall. A few snips of it in a salad add a nice tart element, one reportedly rich in antioxidants or omegas or whatever the current health interest is. At a dinner with friends after weeding kilos of purslane from my backyard last week, I smiled when I saw it as an ingredient of the delicious Pea Green Salad at Bergamot, the justifiably popular if somewhat pricey restaurant near my home just outside Boston.
July 15, 2011
There is no mistaking that you are in Catholic territory when you visit Ireland, a country that someone once told me was similar to Italy in that both nations have lots of religion-based visuals all around, but that it’s only the old people who take the Church seriously. The same cannot be said for the tourists. When my father and I pulled into the huge parking lot at the shrine at Knock, it was filled with Americans toting their recently purchased rosary beads, their small plastic bottles of blessed water. I’d never heard of Knock and its shrine to Mary in all of my years of Irish American Catholic schooling. For those of you similarly uninformed, here’s the official summary: In 1879, fifteen people witnessed an apparition of the Blessed Virgin, Saint Joseph and Saint John the Evangelist at Knock Parish Church. Bingo! A shrine, a pilgrim destination, a tourist attraction. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not, um, knocking the beliefs of the one and a half million pilgrims who visit annually. In fact I’ve always been kind of charmed by the theatrical and magical elements of my past faith, stories of visions, healing miracles, grottos filled with discarded crutches, etc. But I did have to smile when I saw this directional sign herding the faithful this way and that.
July 14, 2011
I call this snapshot “Breakfast in Los Angeles.” Sunshine, two empty Coronas and a full ashtray. This was my first visit to the Wyndham Bel Age, a hotel of revered memory, and I loved it. The room was some suite-type effort with a gauzy curtain you could pull across the room to give a flimsy hint of privacy around the bed. (You could also play “bride” with it.) And its balcony gave onto a courtyard where you could see everyone else’s balcony. Like this one on the floor below. The location was terrific, just steps away from Sunset Blvd, which made for convenient early-morning running (through Beverly Hills to Rodeo Drive and back), but which still allowed it to remain blessedly quiet. There was a pool on the roof for short lap swimming. And we spotted the dreaded Gwyneth Paltrow in the lobby, skinny as a rail in a beautiful turquoise raw silk suit. Sadly, the hotel is no more. It had changed ownership by the time I visited next. (This was the trip during which I went for a late-night swim and there were two fabulous sistahs in the pool, laughing like crazy and sing-song yelling, “Black people can’t swim!”) And then it closed for extensive renovations and a rebirth as The London West Hollywood (“English country flirts with California sun and dances with Hollywood’s Golden Age.” If you say so.) On my most recent LA visit, we stayed at the creepy Mondrian. Lots of noise. No photos, please. And half the people I know who’ve stayed there have had issues with mysterious unfounded extra charges on their bill. Oh, well.
July 13, 2011
Before I went to Istanbul for the first time, there were only two restaurants that I’d made reservations for in advance. One was the late Korfez, a popular and somewhat fancy place on the Asian side of the Bosphorus a bit north of the city centre; they send a private boat to pick you up on the European side. The other was Asitane, in the Edirnekapi neighborhood, right next door to the beautiful Byzantine Chora church with its remarkable mosaics. The food at Asitane was pretty remarkable, too. Take, for example, this delicious Kavun Dolması -- a baked melon, scooped out and filled with a tasty mix of ground lamb, ground beef, rice, pine nuts, almonds, currants and herbs. Asitane specializes in recreating historical dishes from the kitchen registers of Topkapi, Dolmabahce and Edirne palaces, as well as from books and memoirs of visiting foreign dignitaries and other official documents. They regularly delve into menus from famous royal celebrations of the past, such as the months-long feast to mark the 1539 circumcisions of two sons of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. “Dishes from Mehmet the Conqueror’s Reign” and “Aphrodisiacs from the Palace Kitchen” are two of their more recent offerings. My melon entree dates from a 1539 recipe, though whether it was part of the circumcision festivities...I didn’t really need to know. Either way, it was terrific.
July 12, 2011
I have been walking along University Blvd in Tucson for years, past this fence of desiccated ocotillo stalks, dry as dust. Then this year, presto! Heavy spring rains awakened the stalks, they took root, went into leaf, bloomed. A living fence. How miraculous and beautiful. What a wonderful reminder of nature’s powers of transfiguration and renewal. Fouquieria splendens, better known as ocotillo, also known as desert coral, coachwhip, Jacob's staff and vine cactus, although it is not a true cactus. Because of their light weight and decorative patterns, ocotillo stalks have been used as walking sticks for centuries. Protected by state laws, beloved by those who live among them in Arizona and Northern Mexico, they can survive on as little as eight inches of rain a year. Or, as evidenced here, go dormant for long periods before blooming again when conditions are encouraging. Couldn’t we all learn a lesson from that?
July 11, 2011
How happy do I look on this afternoon of my high-school graduation? Rebellious youth smack dab in the middle of the 1960s. That hat! I love that my brother is smirking (smirking? with that jacket?), no doubt delighted that my parents were forcing me to do something that I clearly did not want to do. I recall my mother arguing, “We paid all that tuition? You’re going!” -- an argument that made little sense to me then or now. At least I can look back and smile, see the humor in the “wood”-paneled station wagon, the streets of suburbia, the hair. Seton Hall Prep as it turns out was a good school for emerging alternative types like me, in spite of its Catholic foundation. (Organized crime fans may like to know that SHP provided the inspiration for Anthony Junior’s high school in the TV series The Sopranos.) At one point, several of us wondered if it might have been a covert school for young homosexuals, its secret mission known only to the parents and the school’s administration. (Years later a strict headmaster, a priest for whom the school gymnasium had been named, was hauled up on gay pimping charges in Montreal. Just saying.) I still keep in touch with a few friends from those days. And I’m always happy to learn that we renegades all continue to follow the unconventional paths that we started along way back then.
July 10, 2011
It had been stormy, rainy and windy all day. Then, just as we were about to despair about grilling our swordfish outdoors, the turbulent weather passed and was replaced by this. I ran for the camera. It was one of those vistas that, if you’d seen it in a painting, you might be tempted to think the artist had “enhanced” the actual view to make it more dramatic. Instead, this was just what midsummer sunsets can sometimes look like from our back patio overlooking Gloucester Harbor. A sea breeze whisked away the lingering humidity. The evening turned cool and dry. Our moods improved. The swordfish was great.
July 9, 2011
Why do we love to go to the sea, to be near gently lapping water? Jay suggests that it’s because we came from the sea, that so much of our bodily composition is still water. Maybe. Whenever I’m asked during one of those “picture a peaceful place” meditation exercises, I always think of Silver Beach, New Jersey. I’m probably 13 years old, floating on an inflatable raft in water that’s so remarkably clear that I can see the sandy floor six feet down. The waves are more like ripples. The sun is mild and comforting. I’ve drifted away from everyone else and I’m comforted by the peace, the quiet, the rolling water. Probably such a welcome memory because I have managed to escape from my chaotic and noise-prone family, pushed to the extreme by spending a week in the close quarters of a small bungalow (romantically and oddly named La Cigale.) Recently an acquaintance told me that to distance himself from his violent home as a child at the beach in Ogunquit, Maine, he’d lose himself building elaborate sandcastles, cities even, where the receding tide had created inlets in the sand. “I’d pretend it was the Nile and I’d build Alexandria.” When other kids would ask to help, he’d assign them unimportant minor projects, perhaps a granary, keeping the main parts of his vision for himself. He, too, knew the deeply satisfying and imaginative pleasures offered by the sea.
July 8, 2011
Breakfast is not a Leonard family tradition. On the way home from church on Sunday mornings, we’d stop at the Summit Bakery (NJ) for rolls and donuts, but that’s about it. Weekdays, nada. I know, I know, I’ve heard all the “breakfast is the most important meal” and “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, etc” chants. Still, old habits die hard. Recently, though, I’ve been trying to eat breakfast. I find myself drifting toward the Turkish variety: olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, maybe an egg. Simple to throw together, satisfying, low-carb...and I can easily pretend it’s lunch. Here’s another Turkish breakfast I had one morning on the Asian side of Istanbul on my way to the wonderful open-air Kadikoy market. It’s appealingly called menemen, and can accurately be described as loosely scrambled eggs with sauteed (in butter) onions, tomatoes and green peppers. Spices such as black or red pepper, mint or oregano are added. Sometimes sliced Turkish sausage, too. Served in the pan it was made in along with pide bread, it was terrific. That kind of breakfast I could get used to.
July 7, 2011
When I was in Italy with Nick, working on his Great Italian Desserts book, we stopped in the seaside Sicilian town of Cefalù, a place I’d enjoyed on a visit several years earlier. We checked into a good, cheap waterfront hotel, went for a swim in the Mediterranean (along with some high-school kids on their way home from class; they just took off their clothes and jumped naked into the sea), had dinner and relaxed. I got antsy and when I saw lots of lights down the beach near the port, I took a stroll. A film crew was set up (hence the floodlights), shooting men in boats in the harbor looking up at a big sheet of fabric stretched across part of the port. “Facciando un film” was what the locals told me when I asked what was going on. Sure, I thought, they’re making un film, some low-budget picture that will never be shown outside of Italy. Imagine my surprise then, many years later, when I was watching Cinema Paradiso and there was the scene! Fishermen in their boats watching The Vikings (which must have been added later in post-production.) And though I’m hidden there in the shadows of the port arcades, I maintain to this day that I am in the film. I’m told the “director’s cut” released in 2002 has 51 additional minutes. Maybe...? Hope springs eternal.
July 6, 2011
When my new friends Daniel and Will invited me to their home for “una noche puertorriqueña,” of course I accepted con mucho gusto. I’d met these two guapos not long before at a Sage Farm party and we’d clicked immediately. (That is, immediately after Will realized that this friend of host Mike’s he’d heard about who was studying Spanish was serious about it; that it wasn’t going to be, as he put it, “an endless night of la puerta está abierta.”) Fashion-blogger Daniel is a serious cook when it comes to his homeland’s dishes, and the dinner was terrific. Tostones (mashed, fried green plantains), red beans and rice, seasoned beef and onions. At that aforementioned party, another Puerto Rican friend had described his country’s cuisine as being mostly based on salt and fat. Daniel’s meal this wonderful night gave the lie to that over-generalization. Gracias, chicos.
July 5, 2011
“Fellini doesn’t make those things up,” my friend Dali had told me in advance of our trip, my introduction to Italy. On our very first day there, within minutes of our arrival in Rome, we encountered this mad scene. A Japanese film crew shooting a television commercial with singing nuns, sidecar motorcyclists, baroque fountains and a “peppy” soundtrack to set the mood. Later in the day, we came upon a fashion shoot outside Bulgari on ultra-fashionable Via dei Condotti, a bit tamer (but not much), featuring platinum blonde models covered in cosmetics and jewels. Four years later, when I was visiting Fellini’s hometown of Rimini, not only did I visit the bakery run by his family, but I was also awakened from a mid-autumn afternoon nap as a small marching band appeared out of nowhere and made its way through the piazza beneath my window. When I asked the locals what the occasion was, they all gave me the same answer: a open-palmed shrug. Watch the maestro’s Amarcord again. It’s set in Rimini. You’ll understand.
July 4, 2011
Just my luck. My one trip to the White House had to be during the Nixon Administration. I was working at Brentano’s bookstore in the Mall at Short Hills and was told I had a call “from the White House.” Sure. Which of my friends was pulling a prank? No joke, as it happened. I was somehow selected (because I was editor of the Seton Hall University newspaper) to represent Catholic college students (imagine!) at a March of Dimes tea with First Daughter Tricia Nixon (right.) Between us, an actress named Kathy Garver, then popular as Cissy on a show I’d never seen called Family Affair. (Later I learned she’d played a slave child in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments! Wish I’d known that at the time.) I remember hunting around for any likely souvenir I could pocket, finally finding some matchbooks embossed with “The President’s House.” Tricia, we were told, was “under the weather” but would join us for photos...in that turquoise dress with those snaps! And look at the hair on those girls, every strand glued into place. Garver’s looks like a challah! I also remember staying in a budget hotel between the White House and Georgetown whose demimonde reputation was confirmed when the management woke me at midnight to ask if I was planning to stay the entire night. Our nation’s capital.
July 3, 2011
When I told the handsome Armenian-Turkish brothers at Sevan, a Middle Eastern bakery near my home, that I was going to learn some Turkish, they both informed me, “You can’t do it.” (This was also what they'd earlier announced when I said I was going to learn to make the Turkish dessert ekmek khadayif. I see a pattern here.) Well, I did learn Turkish, biraz, a little, just enough to make me feel comfortable when I visited Istanbul. (I like to learn some of the language before I visit any country. I feel it’s respectful, and it often opens a door to a smile, to get to know someone a little better.) “I want a scrub and a massage.” “Where is Sultanahmet Square?” “I only want to go shopping.” I practiced with the Pimsleur Language Course Basic Turkish CDs. I also took a beginners’ conversation class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, but the students were so scattered in their interest and unruly in their demeanor, there was not much chance to learn the language. Though I did pick up some valuable cultural information. Like the fact that Istanbul taxicabs charge a higher rate after midnight, a fact that came in handy when a driver started his meter on this late-night rate at 7pm and I was able to tell him to switch to the standard rate...in Turkish. And, begrudgingly, he did.
July 2, 2011
Why I like the internet. Or one of the reasons why. Because by googling and clicking and searching further and further, you make some remarkable discoveries. Awhile ago I was watching a homemade Glee fan video on YouTube (I admit it) and was struck by the music track used. The phrasing sounded a bit like Tracy Chapman in that staccato way she’s got, but the voice was purer, more angelic. A few more clicks and I found out the song was called “Half-Boyfriend” by someone named Jay Brannan. Click, click, search and I'd not only learned more about Jay Brannan and seen dozens of photos, but I’d located videos of live performances, found his own videos shot in his Brooklyn apartment and purchased every CD and MP3 of his that I could find. From his own website I learned I’d just missed his tour stop in Boston, but I was poised for his next visit. And when it came time, I bought tickets online the first day they went on sale. Man, he is good. Not only that voice. But an onstage presence so casual and amiable, so nonchalant yet entirely in control of the capacity crowd at Cambridge’s intimate Middle East club, many of whom sang quietly along and behaved in an appropriately reverent manner. It sure beat anything on the internet. Here’s a photo from our upfront vantage point.
July 1, 2011
I love cliches come to life. Owls that “who.” Sober judges. Drunken sailors. And Ireland’s being green as can be. Also, I love that in Ireland, the potato really does rule. As my father and I were driving around the country, we stopped for dinner at a restaurant in Killarney. I still remember the waitress offering me a choice of “boiled, mashed or chips.” When I hesitated, she smiled and said, “I know what you’d like. I’ll bring you all three.” My kind of place. Also, my friend Dali once told me that when she was staying in Dublin, she’d decided to eat in her hotel room one night and went to a nearby storefront for a takeaway tomato-and-cheese pizza. When she got the familiar flat box back to her room, she opened it to find in addition to her pie, you guessed it, a boiled potato. A joke? Maybe not.