Why is Halloween my favorite holiday? Maybe because even as a child I looked forward to changing identities for one evening and running around in public, being rewarded for my efforts with sweets. Or because of the silliness of it, even among otherwise staid adults. The license it offers. For several years I was in Montreal on the days around Halloween (dressed each night in my standard costume as an altar boy, a big hit in the bars of this largely Catholic city) and the shopkeepers, the parents walking their kids to school, people on the bus...so many were in costumes. I loved it. I’ve heard it called “The Gay National Holiday,” but I think it’s bigger than that. Seen here, seasonal decorations from my youth. Three papier maché pumpkins that I treasure. Originally they had paper inserts to indicate eyes and teeth behind the holes, but those papers disintegrated years ago. Actually, I prefer them this way because they look creepier, which is what the day is all about, no?
October 30, 2017
My late friend Dali had some wonderful ideas when it came to taking travel photos. She introduced me to the seminal concept of “jumping pictures,” which are covered elsewhere on this blog. She also was a proponent of having a friend stand near interesting strangers whom she wanted to photograph, shifting her aim from the friend to the strangers at the critical moment, also featured elsewhere. Here, an example of her enviable power of persuasion. Not that I gave much resistance. We were walking through the Villa Borghese one morning, very few people around, and this opportunity, well, just presented itself. Snap.
October 29, 2017
Grandeur. I see it every time I visit a European capital. It’s there in the architecture, the ornamentation, the history as backdrop to modern day-to-day life. London, Paris, Istanbul, Madrid and here in Rome. Every opportunity for a flourish taken. You’ll be waiting for the bus and suddenly realize there’s an angel looking over your shoulder. In the center of Rome, for example, it’s not unusual to find a sweater store or laundry shoulder-to-shoulder with a ruined temple. The small store where you buy toothpaste sits next to the ancient Teatro di Marcello. You’ll turn an ordinary corner on the way to the post office and find yourself in a piazza flanked by buildings designed by Michelangelo. Or on a wide set of marble stairs built to a scale so grand that you wonder if you might need an invitation to be admitted. Istanbul native Cenk Sönmezsoy, who maintains the excellent Cafe Fernando blog, once told me he aspires to abandon digital photography and cultivate the beauties that only film can deliver. I thought of him and his remark when I came across this slide recently.
October 28, 2017
Talk about slow food! I love this woman making tomato paste the old-fashioned way. I saw her as I was walking through this small town where I’d come by bus from Naples to visit with Nick’s cousins. She was out in the street in front of her home, spreading the ever-thickening paste over these planks, allowing it to evaporate further in the warmth of the late-summer sun. I suspect she learned this from her mother, who learned if from her mother. (She wasn’t given much to conversation so I didn’t ask.) Imagine how good this must taste, especially when winter descends on this hilltown, when summer is just a bygone time whose memory stirs up the taste of, well, of tomatoes.
October 27, 2017
“I am standing in the most beautiful place in the world,” said art historian Kenneth Clark in his TV series Civilisation as he stood here in the cloistered courtyard of Urbino’s Palazzo Ducale. Clark was referring to the perfect measurements, the symmetry, the balance and peace of this space. And even if you don’t agree with him, there’s plenty in Urbino that you’ll find most beautiful. The Palazzo itself houses the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche with its works by homeboy Raphael, its Piero della Francesca Flagellation, its Titian Resurrection. This was where I got a wonderful, cheap hotel room “con vista” at the centro’s Albergo San Giovanni. Where I found the delicious pizza at everybody’s hangout, Il Buco. Where I connected with local hero, sculptor Fuffi, a relative of a Ravenna pal. (Years later, when I asked my new Urbino-raised friend Paolo if he’d ever heard of Fuffi, he smiled and said, “Of course, I know of Fuffi. He’s one of the great characters who bring Urbino to life.” Who knew?) At the end of my short stay, I was waiting for the bus to my next stop. Also waiting, a young man on his way to military service and his pals who, kiddingly, kept urging him to stay. In the end, he wound up staying, waving the bus goodbye, squeezing one last bit of dolce far’ niente from his beautiful hometown.
October 26, 2017
There are so many things I love about Sicily. High among them, the wide range of approaches to problems and official situations, completely dependent upon individual whims. When I approached a watchmaker in the old town section of Siracusa for a replacement battery, he took my wristwatch apart, tried a few batteries he had in stock, realized none fit and said, “Time has stopped for you here in Siracusa.” Poetry in commerce. Another example: When Nick and I were about to leave Siracusa early on a Sunday morning to continue the Great Italian Desserts research, we were delighted to read in a guidebook that the abbey of the Church of Santa Lucia, containing Caravaggio’s Burial of Santa Lucia, opened at 9am. We arrived, found a parking space on the deserted streets, knocked on the bolted door. Nothing. After trying a few more times, a custodian appeared and announced that the abbey would not open for several hours and seeing the painting was impossible. Oh, too bad, we explained, because it was one of the few Caravaggios we’d never seen, we were leaving Sicily this morning, etc. He smiled, shrugged, unlocked the door and escorted us to the painting, waited, then escorted us out again. Grazie mille. This photo, a souvenir of our whimsical private viewing.
October 25, 2017
October 24, 2017
Whenever I travel someplace that I want to remember, I try to buy something that I’ll use often, calling up memories each time. The luxurious light flannel pajamas I bought almost 30 years ago in Rome (when the dollar was molto strong.) The paring knife from Dehillerin in Paris that I still use daily. The larger, sharper knife from an Istanbul bazaar that I manage to cut myself with every time. The hammered tin faceplates from Tucson in my downstairs bathroom. The drinking glasses from Mexico. I was explaining this “memento theory” to Jay before we left for Spain, asking what he might need and acquire on our trip. A sharpening stone for his kitchen knives. Which is why he quickly learned many possible ways in Spanish to say (or at least to explain) the item he wanted. And why he also picked up, soon upon arrival, the local word for hardware store.
October 23, 2017
This photo tells you all you need to know about Milan. The fashion. The duomo. Well, not all, but most. Every important designer has a showroom along the Via Montenapoleone. The duomo is at the center of everything, even if the Church no longer is. My first visit here was on the cheap, staying in the clean but inexpensive Pensione Kennedy not far from the centro. I visited Peck, the fancy food store and admired the goods available, especially their cafe salad bar featuring boiled octopus. Leonardo’s Last Supper, of course. And when I approached La Scala to check out the storied opera house, I noticed two American guys trying to get into the building. They spoke no Italian; I did. So I helped them, partly, I admit, because one was the actor John Glover (on a break from filming White Nights) and the other, his boyfriend, a featured dancer in Broadway’s La Cage Aux Folles, introduced to me as “the lovely Nicole.” I told Glover I’d seen him onstage in NYC in Linda Her and The Fairy Garden, to which he responded, “No one saw that!” I scored points, I guess, because we palled around for the afternoon as they bought sweaters at Missoni and then treated me to lunch at the excellent Bagutta. We parted at evening, and I’ve never seen them again. Except on screen.
October 22, 2017
Whenever I travel with my friend Nick, we always wind up assuming nicknames drawn from our surroundings. In Turkey, he is Acili Ezme (a spicy, red pepper paste meze) and I am Ekmek Kadaif (a sweet syrup-soaked bread dessert.) In Paris, we can’t remember what Nick’s name was, but mine was Mimolette (a deep orange cheese.) And in Italy, where everything sounds so good in that most beautiful language on Earth, Nick is Uscita Sottopassagio (a sign in train stations indicating that the exit is via a tunnel under the tracks) and I am Svendita Totale (“Final Sale. Everything must go!”) It was a tough decision because of the many Italian options. I almost went with Caduta Massi (a highway sign indicating potential rock slides), mezzo-soprano.
October 21, 2017
While we love visiting local markets wherever we travel, sometimes they can be a bit alarming. Take these menacing looking fish at the mercado central in Cartagena, please. We’d been admiring the displays of local fruit and vegetables, olives, spices and hanging hams. And then we turned the corner. Well, better on ice in the market than in the water while swimming. Because we aren’t equipped while traveling to purchase and cook the many wonderful offerings at the markets we visit, we often feel sad. This time we didn’t.
October 20, 2017
This is the day I learned how to say “on strike” in French. Robert and I had traveled 35 miles south by train to Fontainebleau, as a day trip from Paris, to see the fabled château and the adjoining forest, formerly a royal hunting ground. Instead we were greeted with signs that read, “En grève.” As you can see, that didn’t stop us from posing on the famous “horseshoe staircase,” the site from which Napoléon Bonaparte bid farewell to his Old Guard in 1814 and headed into exile on the island of Elba. (Which is why Robert is holding his hand in Napoleonic fashion.) Thirty-four French sovereigns from Louis IV (“Louis the Fat,” just saying) in the 11th century to Napoléon III in the 19th resided in Fontainebleau at some time. And had we known upon the occasion of our thwarted visit that Patricia Highsmith’s talented Tom Ripley reportedly lived nearby, we might not have headed back to Paris as quickly as we did.
October 19, 2017
Bustling by day, peaceful at night, this grand boulevard follows a three-kilometer stretch of pedestrian road (though I’ve always seen cars on it, and a streetcar clangs its way from one end to the other) between Tünel and Taksim Squares. “Independence Street” in the Beyoğlu district is often visited by up to three million people on a weekend day, tourists and residents alike, sometimes difficult to tell apart. (I remember the Turkish teenager who asked me the time in his language and was surprised to hear me answer in mine.) During its early 20th-century continental heyday, it was known as Grand Rue de Pera, and after a late-century slump into seediness, it’s back again with cafes, boutiques, restaurants and a rich roster of characters. Walking alone in the evening, I was often approached by touts (aka pimps), suggesting I follow them to an excellent club owned by a cousin or to an assignation with some lovely Russian ladies. One “textile merchant from Cyprus” told me he needed a place to stay for the night. I see. My favorite come-on though was the young man who offered me female companionship one night and then the next, when I reminded him he’d already unsuccessfully approached me, asked me if I was gay. When I told him I was, he outstretched his hands and asked, “Well, how about me?”
October 18, 2017
October 17, 2017
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the Büyük Hamam (“Big Bathhouse”) was wonderful inside. Possessing some remarkable marble architecture throughout its variously temperatured rooms (cool, tepid, hot), this Turkish bath was the last of four I tried during my first visit to Istanbul. By the time I got there I was a pro, having started out at the much-touristed (designed by Sinan, the architect of Blue Mosque fame) and relatively luxurious Çemberlitaş Hamami (a $40 scrub and massage and their signature sudsy finale with a soapy Turkish towel -- natch! -- squeezed over your head so the bubbles come cascading down all over you.) A somewhat run-down and unmemorable Ağa Hamami was next, near a neighborhood favored by transvestite prostitutes. Whatever. The third, Sokullu Hamami, another Sinan wonder in the pre-Istanbul capital of Edirne out in western Turkey near the Greek and Bulgarian borders. (This one was low-key and terrific; the masseur was enthusiastic and I had the feeling that this was what the real hamam experience for Turks was all about. Cups and cups of warm water poured over me at the finish.) And finally the Büyük Hamam, the son of whose owners I had met through my research on YouTube. It was a great, friendly, family-run place, filled with locals young and old, not a tourist in sight in this part of town. They welcomed me warmly, even gave me a towel with their name on it when I left. Middle Eastern hospitality.
October 16, 2017
OK, I admit it. I put off taking a cruise for years because I never though I was a “cruise person.” (No remarks, please.) And also, frankly, because of some dreadful television commercials for the large cruise lines, boats that seemed to be populated by too many people, all of them individuals I’d rather avoid. And here’s something else I’ll admit: I took my first cruise and I LOVED it. Granted it was on Windstar, a cruise line that came highly recommended (thank you, David): small boats (149 or 300 passengers), interesting itineraries, casual style, competitive pricing. There are no assigned seats at meals. No suits or formal wear required. Nicely sized staterooms. And one of the best bathrooms and showers I’ve ever encountered. Jay and I sailed from Barcelona to Lisbon, stopping at Valencia, Cartagena, Almería, Málaga and Tangier. We made friends easily on board. And, in spite of some unfortunate cosmetic surgery in a few cases, the people were exceptionally nice, and so were the staff. Genuinely nice, not just professionally nice. When I snapped this photo, I knew we were leaving our last port before reaching our final destination. And in spite of the Andrea Boccelli/Sarah Brightman duet playing over the sound system (the one lapse in taste during the whole week at sea), I was somewhat wistful.
October 15, 2017
Which country has more tiles, Turkey or Portugal? A tough call, as both lands seem to put tiles just about everywhere -- on mosques, on homes, you name it. But whereas there seems to be a commercial, “downtown” appeal to Portuguese tilework, there is a reverential, almost sacred perspective to those found in Turkey. Take these Iznik tiles, for example, at the somewhat hidden and so seldom-touristed Rüstem Pasha Mosque in the Eminonu neighborhood. The famous blue is here. Legend holds that 15th-century tilemakers in the town of Izmik were influenced by the blue-and-white porcelain of the Chinese Ming dynasty. They gradually added turquoise and the difficult-to-produce red to their palette. And because Iznik potters’ skill was unsurpassed, the sultans soon brought them to Istanbul to fashion tiles only for the great mosques. Look closely and you’ll see there’s also an homage paid to the respected tulip, seen here in several stylized forms.
October 14, 2017
On October 14, 2011, Jay and I met acclaimed Istanbul-based food blogger Cenk for lunch. When he heard we were going to be visiting his hometown, he suggested we meet, and I asked him to come up with a place we’d never find on our own, a place where we’d be the only Americans. Be careful what you ask for. Cenk replied: “Great! I have the perfect place in mind. Hope you guys like beans :)” OK. We do. Then, a few days later: “A friend of mine can not stop talking about the place. I haven't been there before, but she has amazing taste in food and I trust her. She said they only had two tables (two more outside during the summer), only serve beans, rice and pickles....Unfortunately they do not have a phone and she doesn’t even have an address....Her last visit was about a year ago, so if it turns out they are not open anymore, I’ll come up with something else.” He did find something else, and we had a great lunch, a great visit. Meanwhile, of all the places I ate on my earlier 2007 Istanbul trip, my favorite (and Cenk’s, too, it turns out) is Çiya, seen above. We eat there at least once every time we visit the City of the World's Desire. They serve beans, too.
October 13, 2017
Believe it or not, you are looking at one of my favorite restaurants in Istanbul. A few tables, some rope stools, an umbrella here and there. And some of the freshest and best-prepared fish in town. It ought to be fresh. The establishment is set up behind the Karakoy fish market, just steps from the waters where the Bosphorus meets the Golden Horn. It’s popular with people from all walks of life, locals mostly and a few adventurous tourists who’ve read about it. The first time Nick and I went (after a morning visit to Topkapi Palace), he had hamsi (fried Black Sea anchovies), I had pan-fried mackerel. Mmmm-mmm. Of course we returned, this time both of us getting the hamsi, a little salad, a lot of atmosphere. As I think about my upcoming return visit with Jay to the City of the World’s Desire, I wonder just how many lunches we can fit in here this time.
October 12, 2017
On my long list of must-try food items in Istanbul was aşure, seen here on display at Saray on the Istiklal Caddesi. One of the oldest and most traditional desserts in Turkish cuisine, it’s also known as Noah’s Pudding, and therein lies the tale of its dubious origin. When the biblical flood subsided and the ark wound up on Mount Ararat, a celebration was called for as an expression of gratitude. But the ship’s stores were depleted, so those on the vessel made a sweet soup of everything they had left in the pantry. Today, especially in the “month of aşure” (following the Islamic holy day that honors Abraham’s sacrifice, Eid-ul Adha, or Kurban Bayrami in Turkish) but also throughout the year, the dish is made with upwards of 15 ingredients, including wheat kernels, chickpeas, white beans, rice, dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, orange, sugar, rose water, walnuts, almonds currants, hazelnuts, pomegranate...and whatever else is available. Some recipes call for a piece of the traditionally sacrificed meat to be simmered in the soup, too. There are regional variations, of course, and Saray’s may be the gussied-up urban version, but it was mighty good. And, do I have to mention, filling.
October 11, 2017
I’ll have that one right there, please. And that one. And that one over there, too. Oh, the pleasures of the meze tray that’s brought to you at Sofyali 9 (and many another Istanbul restaurant) from which you can choose your selection of appetizers. What have we here? Some stuffed peppers, some whipped feta with hot peppers, some cacik (cucumber, yogurt, garlic, mint), broad beans slow-simmered with tomato, marinated anchovies, some acili ezme (a hot pepper relish), potato salad, the list goes on and on. And these are just the cold selections. At Sofyali 9 (where Nick and I had our first and last meals on this first trip to the City of the World’s Desire), they bring around an assortment of hot meze, too, right from the cook’s kitchen: fried liver cubes (a Turkish specialty) and small cheese turnovers to name just two. It’s so hard not to fill up on meze in order not to spoil your appetite for the main courses, which are also excellent here. And for dessert, how about a slice of perfectly ripe melon? Yes, please.
October 10, 2017
October 9, 2017
Zumos on parade! One of the many fruit and juice stalls within Barcelona’s central market, La Boqueria. For 1.5 Euros you can pick up one of these refreshing juice containers in any number of flavor combinations: orange, raspberry, orange/carrot, kiwi/pineapple, papaya/coconut, you understand. I chose pineapple/mango and was glad I did. It’s tough to walk through this great market and not develop an appetite, one that you might not want to spoil before your 1:30pm lunchtime. So a zumo de something may be just the ticket. Just be careful to count your change. I gave the señorita a ten-Euro note and she only gave me change for a 5. A few moments later I realized the discrepancy and returned to a look of feigned astonishment. She quickly acquiesced after my detailed (and loud) explanation witnessed by other nearby potential customers. A little knowledge of Spanish comes in handy.
October 8, 2017
Can you hear Marjory Wentworth, poet laureate of South Carolina, as she beautifully reads Imagist poems by Amy Lowell here at the poet’s grave? One of the high points of “Sweet Auburn: An American Parnassus,” an event marking the first Massachusetts celebration of Dead Poets Remembrance Day. (The marathon day began before dawn in Gloucester, ended at sunset in Concord, with other events en route in Beverly, Peabody and Boston.) Additional stops along the two-and-one-half-hour stroll through Mount Auburn Cemetery were the graves of such lesser known scribes as Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Fanny Osgood and John Pierpont, Sr. (whose estranged son James wrote “Jingle Bells”), along with luminaries Charles Eliot Norton, Buckminster Fuller, Julia Ward Howe, Robert Creeley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and (ta-da!) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A good attentive crowd, a few loose nuts and bolts, a beautiful day. Readings from poets Lisa Starr and Rhina Espaillat, songs and commentary from the Proper Ladies (a quirky duo whose 19th-century dress and demeanor were almost frighteningly appropriate.) Why South Carolina? Seems Miss Amy, of the Brookline Lowells, chose to spend a lot of time in Charleston, claiming it had “more poetic appeal than almost any city in America.” Maybe. But it seems many chose to spend eternity right here in Cambridge.
October 7, 2017
Was this my first visit to San Xavier del Bac Mission? Or had Simon and David taken me there on an earlier visit to Tucson? At any rate, it was after the 1989 emergency restoration of the interior. An expert job that brought out some of the original 18th-century colors but not so much that it looked like it was born yesterday. Nine miles south of Tucson, rising out of the desert landscape as we get closer, this Franciscan church is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, built when this land was still part of New Spain. Little is known about the artists who decorated the interior of the mission known as the White Dove of the Desert, but the general consensus is that artists in Mexican guilds and workshops created the sculptures, which were then transported north by donkey. Craftsmen then sculpted the gesso clothing on the figures once they were in place. In place outside the Mission (on land that is part of their reservation) are local Tohono O’odham people selling their traditional fry bread from the backs of vans. Food for the body, food for the soul.
October 6, 2017
I turn my back for one minute, and look what happens. OK, more like 40 years, but still.... When I was growing up in Springfield, NJ, I would take the train to Hoboken and then hop the PATH train under the Hudson River and into New York. All the time. I rarely lingered in Hoboken, but when I did, I usually headed to the dark and divey Clam Broth House, a throwback to an earlier age when the city was pretty rough around the edges and still suggestive of its 19th-century heyday. You would not have been surprised to see Walt Whitman (or a lookalike) next to you at the bar. And that’s what it was, a bar, a tough one...with a few tables to the side almost as an afterthought. Good draft beer. Shots. And filling, unsophisticated seafood meals. The clam broth of the name was self-dispensed into little plastic cups from what looked like a large coffee urn. Take as much as you like. Now? On a recent visit I looked in the big picture windows and saw white tablecloths, artfully folded napkins, a Zagat rating! I can’t imagine the broth dispenser is still in evidence. The city itself is cleaned up and respectable, too. The rents are high, the people on the street suddenly chic. At least the old sign is still perched above same as it ever was. Progress.
October 5, 2017
October 4, 2017
Mmmmm. Sometimes all you really want is roast chicken. OK, and potatoes and salad. And if you happen to be in Lisbon, the place to go is Bonjardim right downtown, just off the busy pedestrian Rua das Portas de Santo Antão. This great place has been serving up perfectly charcoal-spit-roasted birds for years and years. They know what they’re doing. Each time we’ve been to Lisbon, we’ve headed straight for Bonjardim on our very first night. Juicy, just the right amount of salt, simply served with a small pot of the fiery piri-piri sauce on the side to be brushed on as desired. And...inexpensive! Dinner for two with wine and water came in at less than $30. We’ve recommended this place to friends over the years, and we’ve even run into them by chance on our trips there. (On a recent November visit, we happily found friends Judy and Seth enjoying our recommendation. The four of us were the only non-locals in the place, that night filled with families and dates enjoying a Sunday evening meal.) Our world standard for roast chicken when it comes right down to it, this memorable restaurante always leaps to mind now when we cook chicken at home, one of us always rhapsodizing, “Remember that chicken we had at Bonjardim....”
October 3, 2017
There are so many reasons why it’s wonderful to learn some of the language before heading abroad. It shows respect for the country and the people you're visiting. It helps you out if you get lost in a non-touristed section of town (like the time we got happily confused descending through the Mouraria neighborhood of Lisbon one night.) It also shows taxi drivers you’re not some bumpkin they can take advantage of (like the time the Istanbul cabbie set the meter to the higher night rate one afternoon.) And then there’s just the simple pleasure of starting a conversation with someone you might not normally engage. Like this cute waiter at the excellent tapas bar Sagardi in Barcelona. Because he wears the same Ray-Ban glasses I do, I was prompted to say, “Me gustan mucho sus anteojos.” He replied with a simple “gracias,” until he saw my glasses and an animated conversation began. He told me where he bought his, how his girlfriend in Washington, DC, didn’t like them at first, etc. It was so nice just to meet someone this way. Also nice, later that same day, was being able to tell the barista in the Bar del Pi that I was leaving Barcelona the day the Pope arrived because “Esta cuidad no es lo suficientemente grande para los dos.”
October 2, 2017
October 1, 2017
There’s an old New England joke: “Don’t like the weather here? Wait five minutes.” Turns out it’s no joke. In the past two weeks the temperatures have been 90 one day, 40 the next. Time to finally harvest my basil before a frost. Time to make pesto. Above, most of my garden’s yield (I kept some plants going for a last-minute tomato sauce or some other culinary emergency.) With almost ten cups of packed leaves, I wound up with plenty of pesto to last me (and some deserving friends) for a good long while. The recipe I follow, which I call “Two of Everything,” came to me from my late friend Dali. Where she got it, I’m not sure, but I suspect it was from her friends the Romagnolis (who had an Italian cooking series at the TV station where we all worked at one time.) Two: two cups of packed basil leaves, two Tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese, two peeled cloves of garlic, two Tablespoons of pine nuts. Throw them all in the food processor, turn it on and add extra-virgin olive oil until it combines and looks like pesto (3/4-1 cup usually.) Presto! And while I make a face when I read about pesto being made with additions of parsley or cilantro, I do regularly substitute walnuts and grated Romano. Put in a small container and covered with a thin layer or oil, this freezes nicely. And it’s great to have the taste of summer in the middle of January. Especially with that nasty New England weather.