December 31, 2011

Gloucester, MA. New Year's Eve, 2010

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

Los Angeles. January, 1992

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

Paris. December 29, 2005

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. March, 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

New York, NY. December, 2008

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

Rome. October, 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

New York, NY. Christmas Day, 2010

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

Watertown, MA. Christmas Eve, 2010

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

Santiago de Compostela, Spain. October, 2009

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

Groton, MA. February, 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

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul. June, 2007

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

Watertown, MA. December, 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

Bologna, Italy. May, 1988

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

Lisbon. October, 2009

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

Sage Farm, Dover, MA. December, 2010

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

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson. March, 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

Mykonos, Greece. October, 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

Málaga, Spain. November, 2010

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

Istanbul. October, 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

Florence. October, 1980

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

Pennington Street Garage, Tucson. March, 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

Çukurcuma, Istanbul. October, 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

Coimbra, Portugal. October, 2009

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

Santorini, Greece. October, 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

Lynn, MA. September, 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

Monemvasia, Greece. October, 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

Lucca, Italy. October, 1984

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

Cambridge, MA. Winter, 1980s

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

Košice, Czechoslovakia. July, 1972

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

Barcelona. November, 2010

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 was just what we wanted. And so easy, especially when the welcoming and super-friendly waitress made helpful 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

Bari, Italy. May, 1988

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.