Recently, Jay gave me a book that details business protocol in some 60 countries around the world. Things to do and, more importantly, things not to do. For example, in Muslim countries like Egypt and Turkey, avoid crossing your legs while seated so as not to display the soles of your shoes (or feet) to anyone...a sign of great disrespect. Who knew? Likewise, be careful of that left hand, as in countries like India it is considered unclean. Shake hands and eat only with your right. Also, to be on the safe side, it’s a good thing to remember that a “thumbs up” gesture is offensive throughout the Arab world. Punctuality is approached differently depending on where you travel for business. In the Far East, better be on time (and better factor in traffic jams to make sure you are.) Whereas in Mexico, according to the book, punctuality “although admired is not strictly adhered to in daily life.” It advises us to be 30 minutes late to any dinner at a Mexican home. Unless that home is in Mexico City, in which case we should show up a hour late. Yikes! Perhaps you could kill time by searching for a hostess gift at a store like this. But be careful if you decide on flowers. Yellow flowers represent death and red ones cast spells. So noted.
April 29, 2011
I had just recently moved to Boston. My brother Brien, up for a weekend visit, was still wearing leather jackets, driving motorcycles and looking (somewhat) younger than me. We’d driven to off-season Provincetown with our friend Deborah, who snapped this fraternal portrait on Herring Cove Beach. Years later in Ptown, as I was sitting on the patio of the Café Blasé with my friend Gary, we spotted the sign of a vintage clothing store across Commercial Street, PastPerfect, that was angled around the corner so as to show only the first half above the shop’s door. “Look,” said Gary. “A door to the past!” “Slam it shut,” I suggested. “Nail it shut!” was Gary’s take. Even more years later, I look back and am glad we couldn’t shut that door. I would never have been able to find this photo, this memory of my brother and me during a windy, off-season day on a beach at the end of the world.
April 28, 2011
Prepping for a trip is a big part of the fun for me. Researching sites, routes, cuisines, languages, accommodations, restaurants, shops, bus schedules, train tickets, alternate routes...all this allows me to enjoy the trip long before I pack my bags and head for the airport. I had done so much prep for my first trip to Istanbul that on the day I arrived, it felt as if I were returning home. (Or maybe I’d lived there in a past life?) For Paris, I’d mapped out possible routes for my morning run. Ditto Istanbul, Madrid and Lisbon. For business trips to San Francisco and Chicago, I’d gone on Chowhound and asked where a solo diner could eat a good meal at the bar. I want to know where the markets and bakeries are, where the locals buy their cheese, what are the best days to visit Aya Sofia, the Musée d’Orsay, Alcatraz. I suspect Jay thinks travel is effortless because things seem to just happen. Our day trip to Sintra, for example, was so easy because I already knew which train to catch from which station, how to buy the tickets, what we might do when we got there...and where to buy the best queijada (cheese tart) in town. Of course, after all that planning, it’s the unexpected detours that wind up providing the best memories.
April 27, 2011
What a gem this restaurant is. When Nick and I went to Istanbul in 2007, we had our first meal here. And our last. Situated in Beyoğlu at the corner of two small pedestrian alleys, it’s the perfect spot for a lazy, late-evening, outdoor dinner. First up, the waiter comes by with a huge tray (how can he balance it?) on which sit about a dozen small dishes of meze choices: purslane in yogurt, eggplant salad, muhammarah (pomegranate/walnut spread), broad beans with tomato, cheese spreads, etc. Various hot meze are circulated among the tables as they emerge from the kitchen: cheese croquettes, fried liver chunks, etc. You’re almost too full to order an entree, but the variety of fresh fish and lamb choices are hard to pass up. To finish, perhaps a slice of the most perfectly ripe melon, the type (and quality) of which is not to be found stateside. A justifiably popular spot for natives and visitors alike (and mercifully quieter and more genuine than some more touristed locations), it provided us both a blessed welcome and a terrific sendoff in this city that seems designed for the pleasures of eating outdoors.
April 26, 2011
Another market. I can’t help it. Especially when there are artichokes still on their long stems as found here. A “field of flowers” (it was actually a meadow during the Middle Ages) occupying a historic square in the heart of the centro historico, the Campo de' Fiori offers not only fresh produce, fish and cheeses each morning, but also a certain amount of unmatched street theater. It used to be the site of public executions. Now on one end, you'll find the restaurant La Carbonara, whose outdoor lunchtime tables slowly invade the market around 1pm. (Pasta alla carbonara, natch, followed by frito vegetale, an assortment of batter-fried vegetables, including mozzarella-stuffed zucchini blossoms.) There’s also a laundry where the proprietress gets a bit spikey if you show up at the appointed time and your wash isn’t done yet; she calms down and becomes charm itself when you return the next day and it’s ready. Also a crumbling cinema and the first place I’d ever tasted potato pizza back in 1980 when it was still unheard of in the Stati Uniti. My friend Patti snapped this photo of me wearing the suede jacket I’d bought earlier at the San Lorenzo street market in Florence. (Almost 30 years later, I still have it, a bit worse for wear, but then so am I.)
April 25, 2011
I never visit Tucson without eating at "Little Poca Cosa". At least twice. Open only on weekdays and only for breakfast and lunch, the sign in the window tells you all you need to know: “Cash only. No phone. Music loud. Hugs mandatory.” Mandatory, that is, if you clean your plate. This little gem (a diminutive spinoff of the larger and muy chic Café Poca Cosa around the corner) had previously been housed for years in a what looked like Frida Kahlo’s 400-square-foot walk-in closet. A tiny spot that, after 9/11, was handed its walking papers because it was in the shadow of a federal building, suddenly too close for Homeland Security comfort. Now in its new and larger digs, it has kept its faithful well fed and has summarily enlarged its cultlike following. Take a look at my breakfast and you’ll see why folks keep coming back for more: Machaca con huevos, rice, salad, fresh fruit, beans, corn tortillas, chips & salsa...and a magnificently simple agua fresca de limón con hierbabuena. (As soon as I got home, I bought limes and searched out dried peppermint to try to make it myself.) Was I able to finish this huge meal? Hint: Marcela gave me a big hug on my way out.
April 24, 2011
David was on his way back from painting in Provincetown and I was happy he stopped for an overnight at my house. How to spend a lazy early-autumn Saturday? How about a walk through the Mount Auburn Cemetery? Criss-crossed with byways named Halcyon Avenue, Primrose Path (yes!) and Oxalis Path, this lovely spot of garden not far from Harvard Square provides the final resting places of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Winslow Homer, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Bernard Malamud, Buckminster Fuller, Mary Baker Eddy and several poets named Lowell, alongside many distinguished others with 19th-century names like Patience, Prudence and Joy. In the full-flush, last hurrah of its seasonal glory, the place never looked so radiant and overgrown as on this warm, late-September day. This simple waterlily pond, with all its shadows and reflections, looked to us like something an idle Impressionist might take a fancy to. We did.
April 23, 2011
My friend Nick bakes up a storm each Easter, always has. And when we lived closer to each other, I was able to enjoy the fruits of his labors more often than I do now. Instead, I either follow his infallible recipes to make these Easter specialties myself, or I try to find them at local Italian markets. This year, Nick is not only teaching a class in Italian Easter Baking at NYC’s Institute of Culinary Education, but he’s also at home this week making, according to his email, Pizza Rustica, Torta di Ricotta and both salty and sweet taralli. Me, I went to nearby Russo’s and bought some of their Pizza Chiena, a deep-dish olive-oil crust baked with a filling of ricotta, prosciutto, soppressata, Parmesan and more. The list of ingredients is somewhat flexible. Both Nick and my friend Dan each make theirs with heady combinations of Italian meats and cheeses. My friend Michael follows his nonna’s recipe with cheeses only, mostly fresh mozzarella. And when I mentioned Russo's version to a woman who works at my library, she said, "It's fine, but it's not like my mother's." I’ve seen this Southern Italian savory pie sometimes spelled Pizzagaina, which approximates a common pronunciation in Naples dialect. For the real backstory and Nick’s recipe, click here. Any way you make it, or spell it, it says Buona Pasqua.
April 22, 2011
On the Sunday morning that Jay and I arrived in Barcelona via the overnight train from Sevilla, we took the metro to Las Ramblas and emerged in the middle of a parade. Literally. We climbed the stairs and found ourselves surrounded by huge papier maché heads carried on poles all along the street. Bienvenidos. But only a few short blocks from this crowded madness is the blessedly peaceful Plaça del Pi, home to our lodgings at the Hotel El Jardí. Look at this lovely square in the Barri Gòtic, the view from our hotel window. (Is it any wonder that as we planned our next trip to Barcelona, we opted to return to the same hotel, if not the same room?) I snapped this photo on the last afternoon of our two-week Spanish vacation as I was waiting for Jay to return from a late-day run. Soon afterwards, he appeared through the passageway, flushed but victorious, back from his trip down Las Ramblas to the port and all along the beach in Barceloneta. I was not a runner back then, but I am now and I’ve since happily enjoyed early-morning jogs through these very same neighborhoods.
April 21, 2011
Jumping pictures. Inspired by the whimsical leaps photographed by Philippe Halsman, ours started in earnest when I visited Italy with my friend Dali in 1980 and she said, “Stand over there and jump after I count to three.” When I expressed doubt, she explained, “Would you rather have a picture of the Coliseum or a picture of yourself mid-air in front of the Coliseum?” I took her point and from then on, well, frequent visitors to this site will see that “the jumping picture” quickly became standard. Here’s one from a later Italian trip, in front of Rome’s main film studio. Dali, Patti and I took the metropolitana to the Cinecittà stop and emerged from the underground station into a neighborhood with sound stages on one side, grazing sheep on the other. Rome. We were refused admission at the main gate, so we walked around the corner, found a huge entrance completely open and unguarded, and walked right in. Recently laundered cardinals’ robes from some picture lay drying on the sunny grass. Vincent Price (who starred in many pictures filmed here) had told us that the cafeteria was good, so we had a coffee and watched extras walk by dressed as gladiators, World War II soldiers, 19th-century courtesans. Didn’t see Fellini, from whose film credits we’d first become enchanted by the name Cinecittà: Movie City.
April 20, 2011
We here in the Bay State suffer through some pretty tough winters, the last punishing remnants of which often linger through late spring. So when the sun finally does peek out for a few hours at a time, smiles also appear and people go down to the sea, anticipating summer pleasures. This April day I headed to Good Harbor Beach and was not alone. Dog-walkers, high-school kids, other winter-whipped souls were here, too. (I think that I suffer from what I call “Statue of Liberty Syndrome” -- when I grew up in New Jersey, I never visited Lady Liberty because she would always be nearby so why rush? The same is true for me now with Good Harbor. I can walk there...and so I rarely do, especially when everyone else packs the place during the dog days of summer.) I don’t know who lives in this house perched above the rocky seaside shore, but it always reminds me of the home in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Let’s hope the occupants are better behaved and a bit more upbeat than the Tyrone clan in O’Neill’s original “reality show.”
April 19, 2011
One of the great things about going for an early-morning run while I’m traveling (besides the exercise and the resulting good mood) is that I get to see parts of the city I normally might not see. In Istanbul, I’d run across the Galata Bridge when these fishermen were among the few already awake. Then I’d head up along the southern shore of the Golden Horn into areas not frequented by tourists. (In a park near the conservative Islamic neighborhood of Fatih, I once saw a woman covered in full black burkha, swinging on a playground’s jungle gym!) On another morning, I headed up along the Bosphorus, running through the Dolmabahce Palace gardens, passing only early commuters waiting for the bus. Or I’d run the path along the Sea of Marmara, watching an early-bird swim club climb down the rocks and jump into the currents of these fabled waters. In Paris, I had the early city to myself, running through the grounds of the Louvre, under the Eiffel Tower, all throughout the Luxembourg Gardens. In San Francisco, out through the park to the Pacific or across the Golden Gate Bridge and back. Lisbon, Madrid...even Albuquerque was mine alone as I ran through the university campus long before classes started. It’s a wonderful way to get to know a city’s neighborhoods in an intimate and personal way...and not a tour bus in sight.
April 18, 2011
One of the many nice perks of leaving my corporate job? My time is suddenly my own, to spend in whatever way I choose. Such as at Boston’s first same-sex salsa dance class at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts just before this Tito Puente Latin Jazz Festival performance. Daniel, Evelyn and Ana were to meet me there between 5:30-6pm for the class. When they didn’t, I partnered with a goodnatured young woman from Berklee College of Music, just as much a novice as I was. The instructor, a vivacious young black man named Vladimyr, put us through our paces, and we were all just fine...until the music started. Then it was the latinos in the class who pretty much showed us gringos how it’s done. Still, in spite of our awkwardness, it was a lot of fun. And when mis amigos puertorriqueños finally arrived (sometime after 8pm), Daniel (in blue and shades) and Evelyn (seen here mid-twirl) announced they’d been “practicing,” which was evident from the way they took to the floor and salsa’d away...without looking at their feet or counting the steps! A miraculously cool break from the week’s heatwave, lots of laughs with great friends and some wonderful sounds from the band Son de Madre. Muchisimas gracias.
April 17, 2011
Blue sentiments on a red car in a blue city in a red state. I love Tucson. Maybe because the university there attracts a somewhat bohemian (by Arizona standards) crowd that lingers long past graduation. Or maybe because word is out that this cultural oasis in a vast Southwestern wasteland tends to be more tolerant than its geographic neighbors. Or because the downtown/university beat is not only walkable but abounds with innovative galleries, clubs and funky shops...along with the scented-candle and ceramic-cactus tourist emporiums. Used bookstores, used clothing stores...it’s where the sharing-and-caring Freecycle began and continues to thrive. And this political-statement-on-wheels is just one of countless examples of the liberal spirit that invests the city. Another: the high degree of acceptance for transgendered people. Every time I visit I seem to meet at least one more person who, I learn later, started life as a member of the opposite sex. (On my most recent trip, I was introduced to a scruffy boxer and all-around auto-mechanic-type guy...and guess what?) The town attracts poets, photographers, painters, sculptors with its mild, open-air spaces and relatively cheap rents. Add to this an enviably easy camaraderie and seeming lack of East Coast competitive nastiness. No wonder my soul opens up every time my friends Simon and David welcome me “home.”
April 16, 2011
With the New Year of 2008, I resolved to finally study Spanish seriously and, this time, learn it. I’d taken classes on a few earlier occasions at Cambridge Center for Adult Education and through Newton’s continuing education program, but I always found myself hampered by the “least common denominator” syndrome -- the class’s progress slowed down by students whose ability and/or interest seemed minimal. On January 1, I began in earnest: Rosetta Stone programs on my computer, Pimsleur CDs in my car during afternoon commutes. And I also answered a posting on Craig’s List placed by a native Spanish speaker who offered inexpensive private tutoring. Diego, mi profesor de español, was an MIT student from Chile, and we met each Tuesday evening in an unoccupied Harvard classroom for an hour and a half of conversation. I’d bring him questions from my home studies; he’d bring Xeroxed lessons and we’d basically just talk, which was great. Food was often our topic, and one night we drove to the Tara Restaurant in nearby Waltham for some Chilean food: empanadas and chacareros (a flat round sandwich roll filled with steak or chicken or pork or all three, avocado, mayonnaise, tomatoes, cheese, hot sauce and steamed green beans.) It was terrific, especially when the fast-talking Chilean owners noted our ages and couldn’t quite grasp the fact that Diego was the teacher and I was the student. I miss him.
April 15, 2011
Sometimes my friends laugh at me for all the preparation I do in advance of a trip. So what? Part of the pleasure for me is the anticipation, the researching of places I’d like to see, meals I’d like to find. Before I visit a new country, I like to learn what its food is like, to pick up a little bit of the language, to read about sites, hotels, restaurants. I scour Chowhound, TripAdvisor, Let’s Go, Lonely Planet and more. And I check in with friends of friends who are chefs, cookbook authors and recent visitors. How else would I have learned about the Residêncial Alcobia on a quiet block near Lisbon’s Praça de Figueira. Or that Room #501 offers this lovely view of the Castello, glorious each morning at sunrise, gentle and bathed in pastels at sunset. (They also have an excellent breakfast buffet that we enjoyed after early-morning runs along routes I’d mapped out based on other runners’ web recommendations.) How else would I have been alerted to doce de cenoura com laranja, a local carrot jam that made excellent gifts for two of my most food-savvy friends? Or the excellent frango (spit-roasted chicken) at Bonjardim, or the bounteous seafood dinners across the river in Cacilhas? And how else would I have had a wonderful, if limited, conversation with two sisters who were selling their treasures at the Feira da ladra, Lisbon’s famed flea market? “Getting there is half the fun” as the Cunard Line used to say of travel on its transatlantic steamships. And for me, a lot of “getting there” is the prep.
April 14, 2011
Would someone please tell me what this odd juxtaposition of signs is supposed to mean? Yes, it’s Texas, but still. I often think about how confusing it must be for visitors from foreign lands when they encounter some of our local signage. Like trying to follow posted directions from Boston’s Logan Airport into the city proper. Half the signs are missing or have sloppily slid into opposite positions. Welcome and good luck. Even no-text, image-only signage can be a problem no matter where you are. Jay was in Rome’s Fiumicino Airport once and became puzzled by a graphic depiction of an individual rebounding from having run into a brick wall. What, he wondered, could this mean? (As it turns out, this was the airport’s way of indicating “No Exit.” SPQR, folks.) And at the movies many years before that in the Eternal Città, long before I knew any Italian, I walked into the ladies room (signori? signore? so close) and when I realized what I’d done, quickly hid in a stall when I heard others entering and remained there until the coast was clear. At least the weather during that Roman bathroom adventure didn’t seem “severe” in any way.
April 13, 2011
One sunny Sunday morning, I took the bus to Eyüp, an Istanbul neighborhood held sacred by Muslims because Abu Ayyub al-Ansar, the Prophet Muhammad’s companion and standard bearer, is buried there. Filled with relics and other holy objects, his turbe (tomb) is a traditional place of pilgrimage for devout Muslims, especially on Fridays for noontime prayer and before weddings and circumcisions...which is what these young boys are ceremonially dressed for. In the past, the sons of Sultans were treated to circumcision festivities that would last for weeks or even months. Special dishes were prepared, prayers recited, music and dancing devoted especially to this time, which marks a young man’s formal entry into the religious community of Islam. Nowadays it’s all done on a more modest scale. Still, the boy (generally between 2-14) will dress like an Ottoman prince with cape, scepter and crown. Somewhere on his outfit is the word Masallah (“Allah preserve him.”) In advance of the surgical procedure, the children are paraded around on horseback, in carts or cars followed by drummers and clarinet players. After the operation, while the guests feast on lavish fare, the boy is helped to relieve his pain in a special room by means of jokes, music and much gift-giving, including the traditional pinning of gold coins to his clothing. And after a few days when he has recovered, the festivities end. Masallah, indeed.
April 12, 2011
It was just coincidence that I traveled from Tucson to Mexico on the day that Arizona passed its controversial bill allowing officers to stop and check anyone’s credentials in an attempt to snare illegal immigrants. But between that and the recent spate of bordertown violence by Mexican drug kingpins (the sheriff of Nogales and his son had been gunned down on the street about a week before my visit), it’s no wonder I only heard one other American voice in this sleepy town usually crawling with gringos in search of serapes, huaraches, decorative tiles, tin souvenirs...and the dirt-cheap pharmaceutical wonders and services offered by the many, many farmacias and dentistas on every block. Ironically, I heard more English spoken here by local hawkers (“Hello, sir,” “We have everything, mister”) than I heard in South Tucson where I’d purchased my van ticket in Spanish and where none of my other fellow passengers spoke en inglés. I lazily checked out the Nogales supermercados and just enjoyed walking along, taking pictures, joined at one point by a chatty high-school girl in a Catholic school uniform. Along the highway back to Tucson, our return van was stopped by Border Patrol USA and I smiled, thinking of “no racial profiling,” as everyone’s papers were checked...except mine.
April 11, 2011
Oh, for the pre-Euro days when a dollar went so much further than it does now. No wonder I spent every other year in the 1980s on an Italian vacation. My first with my friend Dali, who had lived and worked there years earlier so she knew the scene, the protocol, the madness. Seen here, a “fashion photo op” (clue: sunglasses at night) outside the Giorgio Armani store on the Via del Babuino (Baboon Street!) not far from the Spanish Steps, not far from Truman Capote’s apartment in the Via Marguta (also the location of Eddie Albert’s flat in Roman Holiday.) I returned to the same Armani store in 1984 when the dollar was even stronger, and entered this time, buying a beautiful pair of pants that I still have for something like $60. Also a stylish if difficult rubber-and-leather belt. Though my favorite “Armani” accessory is a Western-style cowboy belt that I got for about a dollar from some counterfeiter on the street near the Campo de’ Fiori. These black-market entrepreneurs offer their fakes (i falsi) of sunglasses, handbags, gloves, belts, etc., and somehow, for me at least, the inauthenticity is part of the appeal. I love that on the buckle, instead of GA, it reads CA. Mi piace molto.
April 10, 2011
Look familiar? I love this photo. My wonderful friend Mike took it at his pal Larry’s pig roast one hot and humid July afternoon. I understood the full meaning of “scattered thunderstorms” that day as they hit with alarming regularity on my trip west along the Massachusetts Turnpike. So fierce were the sudden downpours that I had to weave my way around various accidents that had occurred along the high-speed Pike. Once at Larry’s farm, however, a different kind of commotion took over. Pie-eating contests, my first trip in a kayak, “The Polish Boys” who were working for Larry for the summer (one of whom was raking in a little extra cash by dropping his pants for $20 a pop in the garage, just saying), a wide range of people making for a terrific afternoon. And the food, of course. A huge kettle-roasted pig, sliced and served with all the summertime fixin’s you can imagine...and a late-night bonfire to boot! As Mike and I walked around the grounds earlier, we spotted these geese, I had an idea and handed Mike the camera with a quick, “Get ready and wait until I say ‘go.’” Just like Audrey Hepburn did in Funny Face. This is the result. Thanks, Mike.
April 9, 2011
We got up at dawn, trundled into the car and headed from the deserted Saturday morning streets of West Hollywood to a cavernous studio about 30 minutes out of town. The locked chain-link gates opened to let us in...and we were warned not to leave the premises as the neighborhood was “unsafe.” Ah, the glories of shooting a television commercial. Endless setup shots, making sure the lighting is flattering for the product (in this case, Bose noise-canceling headphones), that there are no shadows, that the bottom third of the onscreen frame will allow for a phone number and website to be added later, lots of considerations. The models who showed up looked little like their headshot promises. The demographic mix of passengers in the “airplane cabin” wasn’t varied enough. Someone didn’t like the chair that had been selected. Or the wardrobe. The tracking shot moved too quickly. It’s a wonder anything actually gets filmed. This was a characteristic 16-hour day. And while the “craft service” (aka snacks) was OK, and the catered lunch superb, I still would rather have joined Nick at Alan’s house in Santa Monica that night for Alan’s fabled brisket. Instead, I kept borrowing cellphones to update him and finally to cancel. At around 11:30pm, we wrapped, headed back to our hotel, readied for more of the same the following day. Still, when the beautiful spot was finally finished and broadcast, all of these troubles and annoyances remained unseen, just distant memories.
April 8, 2011
A full day-trip from Lisbon started with our hotel breakfast (along with traditional snagging of some items for lunch later on) and a brief train ride to nearby Sintra, a well-preserved former royal vacation spot that is a major tourist stop and a bit too Disney for our tastes. Still, the colors of the town were beautiful (Art Necco palette) and the steps of the royal palace provided a sunny corner for this photo, but we were more eager to sample the local quejadas (cheese tarts) and move on to Cascais. A coastal cliff-hugging, hairpin-turn-filled bus ride got us to the seaside resort just in time to visit a local supermarket and enjoy the resulting picnic lunch on a secluded patio overlooking bathers on a small beach below. (Three stoned guys soon joined us and started goofily painting each others’ faces. Just saying.) A lazy afternoon on the palm-shaded promenade, a coffee, a quiet train back to our beloved Lisbon. A nice opportunity to leave the city for a day, and so good to be at the sea, though we wished we’d brought along our bathing suits. Next time.
April 7, 2011
Sometimes you want to get away but you don’t have the time, the money, the energy. And that’s when my favorite substitute seems a perfect solution: a local ethnic restaurant. Living as I do near Boston, I can sit down at any number of places, tuck a napkin under my chin, and dig into a foreign country pretty much any time I want to. Last night, for example, I took birthday boy Michael for a mealtime trip to Algeria and Tunisia courtesy of the treasured Baraka Café in Cambridge. Four mezes (spicy carrot puree, smoky eggplant salad with labne, grilled merguez sausages and the best: chickpea custard with harissa), two entrees (potato and cauliflower cake on spicy olive tapenade, North African marinated skewers of lamb, sausage, chicken and beef over deep-fried shredded carrots with greens and cucumber/yogurt salad) and a split dessert (seven-spice flourless chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and mango sorbet), plus tax and tip: $66! Imagine what the airfare to Tunis alone would have cost! Madame Chef, grace itself in full burkha, cooked up a firestorm in the tiny kitchen and remembered us (love it!) from our visit a year earlier. The smells and tastes of Istanbul, too, are less than three miles away at our beloved Saray (pictured above) where a heavenly meat-heavy “special” combo plate (grilled shish, chicken and adana kebabs, kepez kofte, two lamb chops and lahmacun, yogurt, salads and rice: $16.95) whisks me back to Beyoğlu without my having to pack, pass through customs or even fasten a seat belt. Because the next-best thing to being there is “eating there.”
April 6, 2011
I had read about Güllüoğlu before I visited Istanbul, knew that it was housed in what sounded like an unappetizing location (ground floor of a parking garage) and became determined to find it. When I learned it was not far from my Beyoğlu digs, there was no stopping me. Yes, it anchors a high-rise parking facility, but you’d never know it. Güllüoğlu is a bustling baklava shop and cafe. (It’s also the only place in Turkey where I saw tea served in a cup rather than in a glass.) You go up to the large, L-shaped pastry counter and point to which kinds you would like (there are many shapes, many different kinds of nuts used, even chocolate baklava) and a non-judgmental salesman places them on a plate for you. Then you go get your tea at a different counter. Then to a checkout counter to pay. I visited this filo paradise many, many times during my Istanbul stay, each time emulating the admirable example set by high-school students who pack the place during the late afternoon: The general rule for them seems to be to have about five or six pieces. No problem! There are inside counters at which to eat or outside tables on a small patio. Of course, you can find baklava at hundreds of places in Istanbul and I thought it my moral obligation to taste-test quite a few. Güllüoğlu is my hands-down favorite.
April 5, 2011
Early on a Sunday morning, not exactly peak time along Hollywood Boulevard, we pretty much had the sidewalk to ourselves. Dali and I were in Los Angeles for a Mystery! press event and we decided to take in some of the sites. I can’t remember whose idea it was to actually lie down on the Walk of Fame, probably Dali’s. No problem. Linda Evans. Ann Miller. Jane Russell. Maybe not our first choices, but we leapt upon the closest ones, not wanting to tempt fate too much by getting down and dirty all over the avenida. Bronze star-plaques embedded in pink and charcoal terrazzo squares collectively make up the world’s most famous sidewalk, and the juxtapositions are often ironically amusing (Lassie next to Ronald Reagan; Garbo next to William Shatner) or touchingly appropriate (Judy Garland next to Mickey Rooney). A quick walkby clearly indicates a recent lowering of standards from the days of Rudolph Valentino, Bette Davis and Gary Cooper. (Shrek just got one? TV how-to pioneer Julia Child does not have one but Destiny’s Child does?) To “earn” a star, then as now, the honoree must appear at the installation ceremony in person -- no exceptions -- often bringing along some nearest and dearest. For example, when Bruce Willis (right next to The Lone Ranger) got his star in 2006, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, Sylvester Stallone, Don Johnson and Billy Bob Thornton came to cheer him on. And if that lineup doesn’t speak to lower standards, I don’t know what does.
April 4, 2011
Today, a “postcard” from Florence of the Ponte Vecchio and the River Arno, taken from a window in the Uffizi...and a story from my friend and former colleague Lou. He and his wife, frequent visitors to the Tuscan city, were dining al fresco at one of their favorite trattorie, this one in the Piazza della Signoria, steps from the towering (copy of) David by Michelangelo. At the next table, an American tourist couple, the wife of which was fretting over the menu and grilling the waiter. “Do you have diet soda?” “I need something that’s low-carb.” “Do you have any fat-free entrees?” “What can you suggest as a low-calorie choice?” The waiter, a charming but increasingly exasperated Florentine, well-accustomed to tourists but unprepared for this kind of questioning, finally replied, “Signora, this is a restaurant, not a hospital.”
April 3, 2011
Oh, Florent. Gone but hardly forgotten. Memories of your great meals, your wonderful ambience live on. When Nick first took me here for dinner in 1985, the neighborhood was still grungy and dark, Florent’s Christmas lights in the distance acting as a beacon, way down questionable Gansevoort Street. Now, it’s Stella McCartney and Diane von Furstenberg all the way from one end of the expanding Meatpacking District to the other. (And don’t even get me started on the High Line!) Florent, home of affordable French food before the word bistro became overused and laughable. Prix-fixe dinners at $16.95! Steak frites, rillettes, escargots, boudin noir, paté de campagne...all served in a tricked-out remodeled diner with dozens of framed maps on the wall adding an international suggestion of faraway places. Eating at the counter was always a special treat for Jay and me, allowing us to think of Florent as “our place.” Alas, as the 1980s gave way to the ’90s, more and more young people dressed in black turned up late night and the place (open 24 hours) became somewhat chic. Suddenly crowded and the hub of a downtown “scene,” its food remained memorable even as its outsider status gave way to trendy. Through it all, certain traditions remained solid: Florent Morellet still dressed up as Marie Antoinette and paraded around each year on Bastille Day. Alas, loyal crowds, drag royalty and wonderful food were no match for greedy landlords and astronomical (7x) rent hikes...and Florent served its last crème caramel on June 29, 2008. M. Morellet auctioned all those maps on eBay, generously split up the proceeds among his staff and moved on.
April 2, 2011
When I returned from Nogales, Mexico, to South Tucson, I decided to explore. Through residential neighborhoods (guarded by vigilant barking dogs), I made my way to Spanish-speaking South 12th Avenue and La Estrella Bakery, which I’d read was the “Best of Tucson” in a newspaper’s readers’ poll. A counter, a display case, a table with day-old breads, a back area where the baking is done -- this is a no-nonsense operation. Except for the names of some of the panes dulces on sale. Because of Nick’s interest in Mexican baking, I had to buy some: lenguas de suegra (mother-in-law’s tongues), piernas (legs), hebillas (belt buckles), elotes (corn), orejas (ears), coyotes, pig cookies and two kinds of pan de huevo. I headed back outside into the bright daylight where, I realized, I should photograph these sweets before someone ate them. I found a sunny curbstone, spread the pastries out along the opened box and got ready to shoot. Just then, an emaciated, really toxic-looking drunk man shuffled up and asked me why I was “taking pictures of the donuts.” I explained as simply as I could, and then asked him if he’d like one. “No thanks,” he said, “I’m watching my weight.”
April 1, 2011
I wanted to see more than just Istanbul on my first visit to Turkey, so I took an early morning bus from the rainy city to sun-filled Edirne, three hours west, on the borders with Greece and Bulgaria. What drew me here (aside from the thrill of being in Thrace!) was the famous Sinan-designed Mosque of Selimiye that established the architect's reputation when this was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. It was one of the few mosques I visited that had beggars positioned at focal entrances, human reminders of the Qu'ran's commandment to share one's wealth with those less fortunate. In addition to visiting Edirne’s Eski Cami ("old mosque") and a Sinan-designed hamam where I enjoyed a relaxing Turkish bath and a sensational "massage and rough scrub," I also took a walk out of the city to the Beyazit II complex with caravanseri (originally to house visiting pilgrims and their animals), medical school, public soup kitchen, hamam, storage rooms, insane asylum (where the main “instruments of healing” were the sounds of music and water) and mosque proper. Settled out in the undeveloped fields, it gave me a real idea of how most of these mosques I'd been visiting in Istanbul had originally sat upon spacious grounds, their minarets visible to the approaching traveler from miles away. No one was in the Beyazit II mosque when I visited, the prayer rugs were all rolled up and stashed in a niche built into an outside wall. Then, almost out of nowhere, a young man bicycled up, removed his shoes, washed his hands and feet and entered the mosque to pray, one of five times he would probably do so this day and everyday.