The first sign of spring? For some it’s the lengthening amount of daylight. Or the spikes of the daffodils poking up from the sections of garden that get the most sun. Or the appearance of relatively local asparagus in the market. But for us, it’s the return of the ducks to the ponds in our front yard. We have a vernal pond that fills with winter’s snow and rain and is still, this brutal winter (2011), frozen and inhospitable. But a low-lying section of our lawn collects melting snow and other precipitation and provides what we call the “wrong pond” for the returning flocks. This year we’ve seen more than ever before. A good sign. Can this mean winter is really, unbelievably on its way out? Jay, Scottish and economical, wonders if there is any way we can catch and eat the ducks. A bad sign.
March 19, 2018
Every year when St. Joseph’s Day comes around, I start jonesin’ for my friend Paul’s mother’s home cooking. The Sicilian spitfire sets a mean holiday table, complete with fritattas, sausages, antipasto, zeppole di San Giuseppe and, yes!, Pasta con Muddica. This traditional pasta with garlic (raw), a little sugar, optional anchovies, parsley and breadcrumbs (meant to symbolize the sawdust of the carpenter saint) is a much welcome once-a-year starch picnic. And no one serves it up with as much enthusiasm or generosity as Mrs. A. (Just as appetizing are her childhood stories about past family celebrations at which she would dress as the Blessed Virgin and participate in living-room pageants. Though last year we got diverted into more modern "spiritual" tales of a ghost who currently inhabits her home.) Grazie mille, Mrs. A, for including me at your family table for the third year in a row. I feel blessed.
March 18, 2018
Twice each year, restaurants in major US cities like Boston offer up bargain-price meals to entice new diners to try their fare. Two- and three-course lunches and dinners for $15.11 to $33.11. I’d often read the list of participating restos and their menus but never actually participated. Until now. A three-course dinner at otherwise pricey Miel, a “Brasserie Provençal” within Boston’s Intercontinental Hotel. From the menu (complete with its quirky repetition, spelling and punctuation): Pistou Soup with Traditional Provençal Vegetables and Basil Soup; Pan Seared Salmon with Crisp Camargue Rice Cake and Lobster Nage with Tarragon; Pear Tarte tatin with salted caramel ice cream (pictured). The food was fine (though some menu choices had -- surprise! -- “For an Additional $8” surcharges), the room a little fancified, the hostess ill-suited for a hospitality position, the server un peu insincere (because we were discounted diners?) The Algerian bus boy, the most genuine person we encountered, should be promoted. Fortunately the enjoyable company made up for any shortfalls. Was it worth $33.11 plus tax and tip? Yes. Would we go back? Probably not. I’ve since heard that during Restaurant Week, you get what you pay for. Sounds about right.
March 17, 2018
Can you tell this is Ireland? A crumbling castle indicating glory long past. All that green with artfully pinpointed floral moments? And an Irish citizen jumping there right in the middle. Actually I used my Irish passport when I took my father on this trip through the Old Country, helping him to adjust after my mother had died. It was not easy. My father has his ways. As do I. But we drove a thousand miles in those 10 days, stopping wherever we wanted. On our way to The Burren (the Irish national park, not the Somerville, MA, pub), this castle beckoned. We stopped, jumped, moved on.
March 16, 2018
Pears. That most satisfying and elusive of fruits. In America, it seems, you tend to get them rock hard or disappointingly mealy. Period. So each time we travel to Europe, where produce is respected for its ripeness and its flavor, Jay and I make sure to search them out. Above, some beauties at the Mercado da Ribeira in Lisbon. I still remember my first European pear, purchased as I was stocking up in Agrigento on the day before an Italian national strike. Memorable also were the pears from the market in Santiago de Compostela. And, most recently, in a salad at Da Gildo in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood: thinly sliced pear, topped with a small handful of arugula, crowned with generous shavings of Parmesan, all laced with some mighty fine olive oil. Basta. When I complimented the owner, she smiled understandingly and said, “Molto semplice.” On Thanksgiving weekend 2011, I was telling my wonderful neighbor Susan about this salad and she soon brought me four of the most delicious pears I’ve ever had. (She’d received a Harry & David dozen as a gift.) She generously suggested, “Now you can make that salad at home.” Thank you, Susan, we did.
March 15, 2018
I took an early morning tender to the port from our boat docked offshore (seen center) so I could have a solo run along the beach road, into the island’s center. I was not disappointed. Closed-up seaside resorts, lovely public parks, off-season hotels, restaurants abandoned until late spring, perfectly deserted streets just waiting for the inquisitive runner. I met some Italian ladies from Taranto, also on vacation, just sitting on a bench, warming in the sun. And by the time I headed back to the boat to shower and then return to town with Jay, I already felt at home on the volcanic island. (Maybe because Ischia has been, since 1984, a twin city to Cambridge, MA, though at present the relationship, like the volcano, is inactive.) I opted not to visit the Museum of Torture, but wish I could have seen the many thermal baths that dot the island. Or the one-time homes of Ibsen, Auden and Capote. Even the film locations for Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. Next time.
March 14, 2018
Sometimes you just want a salad. Especially after you’ve been enjoying a series of savory regional specialties on a food-rich vacation. When I was 20 years old and returning home after a full summer in London, all I wanted was fresh vegetables. And our recent trip to Barcelona prompted a similar reaction: seafood and ham tapas were all great. But when we happily and accidentally stumbled upon this salad bar in the Eixample neighborhood, we were overjoyed. All you can eat (buffet libre) from a wonderful array of greens, beans and all the accompaniments you’d expect. There’s also a selection of two or three hot entrees (pizza, pasta, paella). And a dessert bar with cake and self-serve ice cream. All for 8.95 euros at weekday lunch time (10.95 Euros at noches, fines de semana y festivos.) Drinks (except water, tea, coffee) extra. Lactuca (Catalan for lettuce) is a limited chain with a few outlets in Barcelona, developed to appeal to the growing number of resident and visiting vegetarians. It’s a good place to know about, because sometimes you just want a salad.
March 13, 2018
This Art Deco charmer stands out on its street corner in Old Havana. It’s the city’s major bookstore, a cavernous repository for government-approved literature, posters, notebooks, maps, some other items. Unlike the USA bookstores we’re used to, its shelves are not chock-a-block with merchandise. Instead, a few tables here and there, some displaying a handful of cookbooks (mostly from Spain) or children’s illustrated books, picture books for the tourists and, of course, polemics from Fidel, from Che, from Karl Marx. There was an abandoned coffee bar in one corner, guards checking bags on the way in and the way out. A revelation in its spareness.
March 12, 2018
Walking along a quiet street in the slow-paced Caribbean coastal town, I met this lovely woman selling polvorones from her living room open to the street. Because I love the Mexican version of these simple butter/sugar cookies, I had to indulge. For professional reasons, of course. And so, my first encounter with the differences between the two types of money that circulate in Cuba. Moneda nacional, or CUPs, for Cubans themselves. And CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos), the “hard” currency that we tourists use. Both monies called pesos (and centavos), both designated in print with a $. Her cookies were 1 peso (moneda nacional); I only had CUCs (Cuban convertibles). So I gave her one CUC (pronounced amusingly as “kook”) and she figured it was the equivalent of the huge stack of cookies she gave me. (No problem. I found a number of enthusiastic takers in my group.) All this and a wonderful conversation as she welcomed me into her parlor to take this photo. Gracias, señora.
March 11, 2018
Yes, the great cars. This lovely example, just one of the fascinating beauties seen all the time on the streets of Havana, on the highways, even in the smaller towns outside the main cities. Old Chryslers, Chevrolets, Packards, Cadillacs, the occasional Edsel or DeSoto. I stood on a corner counting one afternoon and one in every four cars that passed was from the American 1950s. (My friend Jane, who’d visited Cuba last Christmastime, told me that, “You’ll be amazed when you see them for the first few days, but then you’ll get so used to them, you’ll almost forget to notice.” Hard to believe, but somewhat true.) Many of these cars, like this one, are colectivo taxis, following certain preordained routes, stopping for people on street corners, packing in as many folks as can be managed, then dropping passengers off at their desired destinations. (I was told that until recently it was illegal for the colectivos to pick up tourists. But “illegal” is a pretty flexible word in Cuba and while I didn't see many tourists in these cars, I did see some.)
March 10, 2018
Though some doubt the veracity of the Hemingway quote indicating that La Bodeguita was the home of his favorite mojito, just a whiff of truth has been enough to establish this bar/restaurant as a major tourist attraction. (And most of the visitors have “immortalized” themselves by signing every available inch of wall throughout the place.) Fortunately our group lunch occurred in an upstairs private dining room, sparing us much of the fracas in the bar. Instead, a welcome meal of Cuban standards: roast pork, picadillo, fried ripe plantains, moros y cristianos (black beans/white rice combo), salad, chicken and, of course, mojitos all around. The bonus: a really expert strolling trio delivering up other Cuban standards like “Guantanmera,” “Besame Mucho” and “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás.” Hold the mojitos, fellas, just bring on the music and the food.
March 9, 2018
Here’s my friend Lisa, chatting with the sweetest security guard in the world, going through the book he’s using to learn English. He’d heard us speaking, asked if we would pronounce something for him, then showed us the sentence: “You carry on straight on.” We surmised quickly that he was learning British English and told him that Americans would say, “Go straight ahead.” He smiled, told us he meets a lot of tourists and that he thinks Americans pronounce their Ts like Ds, whereupon he kindly mimicked for us how USA folks say “beDDer” instead of “better.” I asked him about mantequilla, and he slowly said, “buDDer.” Our lovely midday conversation with this amiable man would have been reason enough to travel to Cuba. Hope he’s still there guarding the main square the next time we head back to this beautiful Caribbean coastal town.
March 8, 2018
I was traveling in Cuba as part of an “Art & Architecture” tour with New York’s Center for Cuban Studies, legally, with a people-to-people license from the US State Department. And for me, the best part was, appropriately, the people I met throughout the country. Like this young woman who was just enjoying the warm afternoon breezes through her living-room window in this southern coastal town. So lovely and welcoming, she laughed and spoke with many of us as we tried out our Spanish and engaged in one of the many casual connections that made this trip to Cuba so very special. It was remarkable to see how open-hearted so many of the people I encountered in Cuba were. Forgive my naive observation, but it was almost as if these people, many of whom have so few material goods, value instead the rewards that come from genuine and warm interactions with family, with friends, with total strangers like me. Lessons to be learned.
March 7, 2018
This beautiful ribbon of seaside esplanade stretches some four-plus miles through the capital along the Atlantic coast, from its eastern beginning in downtown Centro Habana to its western end when it ducks beneath the Almendares River and delivers you into the more genteel Miramar. Begun in 1901 during a period of US military rule of Cuba (following its winning independence from Spain), the Malecón is the favorite hangout for residents and tourists alike, filled with strollers, musicians and artists both day and night...except sometimes like this when the strong winds come in from El Norte and cause the waves to crash over the sea wall, dousing pedestrians, cars, sidewalks and streets with impunity. This wonderful day, el M was unpredictably moody, tempting fishermen to approach, then tricking them with a sudden drenching or two. Surprise! But whether walking its afternoon length, driving along in a nighttime taxi, even just catching a glimpse of it at the end of a busy city street, it's hard not to succumb to its pulse, its welcome.
March 6, 2018
No, you’re not imagining it. There really is music everywhere you go in Cuba. Every restaurant. Every street corner and park. Even snack bars. We stopped for coffee one morning at an open-air patio within the rainforest model community of Las Terrazas and sure enough, soon there appeared five musicians and two vocalists kicking the energy up several notches. Then, as we ambled through the nearby artists’ studios and residential areas, this young man, practicing the guitar peacefully and solemnly on his front porch. Quiet, lovely, just the right score for our warm and sunny stroll here in the Sierra del Rosario mountains of western Cuba before heading back to the always rhythmic streets of Havana.
March 5, 2018
Old Havana. I was all prepared for the historic sights of this Spanish colonial part of the city, the wrought iron balconies, the riot of colors, the cobbled streets. What I was not prepared for was how wonderful the Cuban people are. And not just here in the touristed part of the capital, but all over the city and in other spots visited throughout the country. The Cubans I met were the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever encountered in all of the countries I’ve visited. This handsome couple and I had a great Spanish conversation (gracias, Diego; gracias, Pimsleur; gracias, Rosetta Stone) filled with lots of laughs. When I asked if a certain T-shirt came in any larger size, he told me the one I had was muy sexy. I suggested that muy sexy might not be the best choice for this gringo viejo. Just one of many such connections made in my all-too-brief visit to this warm, beautiful land. I can’t wait to return.
March 4, 2018
One of the frustrating things about visiting the wonderful markets on my travels is that I’m usually without a kitchen in which to prepare the beautiful produce I find. Not so here in Istanbul. I was staying in the Galata Residence, a 19th-century apartment building converted into a budget hotel that offers rooms and suites with small kitchens. Not that anything in this breakfast of mine needed cooking. Three kinds of in-season and perfectly ripe fruit -- the season’s first cherries, famed Turkish apricots and a sour green plum called erik. The thickest and creamiest yogurt. And two kinds of baked goods purchased from a nearby cart after my early morning run -- açme, a yeast-risen, brioche-like donut, and poğaça, a sesame-studded flaky pastry filled with cheese, meat or black olives. Truth be told, there was a third, simit, a crusty, seed-covered “Turkish bagel,” but I ate it before I thought to take this picture. Also not shown, the tea I’d made, thanks to the hotplate in my kitchen.
March 3, 2018
It’s no accident that I feel my soul open up whenever I visit Tucson. The sky. The sun. The warmth (I usually visit during cold New England winters back home.) And the fact that my generous hosts Simon and David are artists, given to creative thinking, provocative conversation. And given to great company with a group of friends similarly inclined. Fortunately a recent visit coincided with Tucson’s First Saturday, a monthy event during which many galleries hold opening receptions for newly installed shows. Like this one at the Conrad Wilde Gallery on 6th Street, its Sixth Annual Encaustic Invitational. Attended both by enthusiastic investors and by participating and interested artists, this and other nearby openings remind me of Tucson itself: easy, comfortable, warm, hospitable, welcoming, enlightening. All this, good art...and refreshments, too.
March 2, 2018
How is booking a cruise like buying a car? Well, once you pay for it, the seller doesn’t want to hear from you again. Until you’re ready to buy another. And should the price of the vacation you’ve already bought go down, they really don’t want to hear from you. (Currently, an October cruise we booked with a nice discount in January was being advertised in August for a lot less, along with incentives like free cabin upgrades and on-board credits.) So perhaps you can benefit from a few things we’ve learned. As with many corporations that deal in sales, cruise companies’ best deals seem to emerge just in time to boost quarterly numbers: end of March, June, September and especially December when important end-of-year figures are tallied. Vacation discounters advise booking only 30-90 days in advance for the best prices. It’s also probably a good idea to be fully happy (like us) that the itinerary and the price are both to your satisfaction. And to avoid checking (unlike us) on what the updated offers may be after you’ve paid. Jay (shown here with our ship in the background) and I are looking forward to our next Windstar cruise, happy that we got a good deal, and only slightly miffed to learn that we could have done a smidgen better had we been earlier or later with our purchase. We’ll just take extra shampoo and moisturizer from the excellent on-board bathroom amenities.
March 1, 2018
If you can’t quite figure out what you’re looking at here, don’t fret. The whole scene is a bit unreal even for those of us who were there. The Fisherman’s Feast of the Madonna Del Soccorso di Sciacca Society of Boston is the biggest of the Italian-American festas that turn almost every weekend in this neighborhood into a crowded madhouse of fried sausages, fried dough, strings of colored lights, games of chance, local brass bands, statues of saints paraded down one street and up the next so the devoted can pin cash offerings to attached ribbons. But the Fishermen’s Feast has something the others feasts don’t: the “flight of the angel,” seen here. As the statue of the Madonna finally arrives at the corner of Fleet and North Streets, it pauses, and from a nearby fire escape, lowered by ropes and pulleys, and attended by two earthbound sister seraphim, comes this angelic young lady who shrieks, “Silenzio!” and then addresses the saint with “Ti saluto, o Maria, piena di grazia, etc.” At the end of her short prayer, boisterous crowds rejoice, breathtakingly (literally) thick confetti flies and a small wooden boat suspended above the Madonna opens, releasing doves that had been hidden inside. Completely over the top. Completely Sicilian. And completely wonderful.
February 28, 2018
Oh, no. Just before we landed in Tangier, my camera started misbehaving. Shades of purple would appear. The image would blur and run. But mercifully, not on every picture. So I would never know if I’d get the shot or, as in this case, not. Fortunately I managed to take plenty of photos in both Tangier and in our next and last stop, Lisbon. And when I got home, Canon customer service was extraordinarily helpful. They listened to my description of the trouble, acknowledged their responsibility for the problem, reassured me that it would be fixed...and then not only paid for postage both ways for the free repair, but had my camera back to me within a week! So, as evocative as this lavender blur of Tangier’s medina may be, I’m happy to be back on track for more conventional photos with my trusty Canon PowerShot A95, a simple and reliable travel companion.
February 27, 2018
What a lovely break from the crowds of Istanbul was this day trip west to Edirne. On the Turkish border with Greece and Bulgaria, it was originally founded by Hadrian as Adrianople, then later became the Ottoman capital before the sultanate moved to Constantinople. Consequently it’s dotted with wonderful examples of remarkable architecture and decor. Like this domed ceiling in the Eski Cami, the “old mosque.” “Old” in this case means 1413. And this was only my first stop in this quiet eastern Thracian city. Before the day was over, I’d hit two more wonderful mosques (one out in country fields, one a major historical site), a Turkish bath, two markets and a father-and-son sandwich shop where I had a chicken shish on pita for less than a dollar. Then, on the two-and-one-half-hour bus ride back to Istanbul, the movie being shown featured my old pal, actress Deborah Rush. (I’d seen a book by her curator brother Michael, a good friend from high school, in an Istanbul book shop the previous night.) Small, wonderful world.
February 26, 2018
Each summer, when Vincent Price would come to Boston to tape his introductions to Mystery!, we’d have a small party after we’d finished. His wife, the actress Coral Browne, would arrive for the event, and we’d all have a generally good time. On Vincent’s last day of taping before he retired as program host in 1988, the party was a tad more extravagant, posters of him hanging around the studio, monitors showing scenes from his classic films, some of the crew members’ families in attendance. The stage manager’s French wife arrived with their young daughter who became fascinated with the scenes from The Tingler. When the spiny demon emerged to choke one of its victims, the little girl became upset and concerned and asked her mother for consolation. “Oui, ma cherie,” her mother comforted, “C’est langouste.” (Of course a little New England girl would recognize a lobster.)
February 25, 2018
When I find a recipe I like, I stay with it. And when it comes to baking, I always use my friend Nick’s recipes. He tests them so thoroughly and has such a sympathetic appreciation of the “home baker,” that his recipes always work. For example, his Torta di Nocciole alla Veronese, pictured here. When Nick and I were traveling through Italy in 1988, gathering recipes for his Great Italian Desserts book, visiting bakeries and restaurant kitchens, tasting every baked good that wasn’t nailed down, he found this recipe in the hazelnut-growing northern Italian region near Verona. It’s so easy and so good and comes out beautifully every time. Ground nuts. Breadcrumbs. Eggs, separated and each part beaten with sugar. Marsala (I use vanilla instead.) Melted butter folded in. Basta. Bake for 30 minutes at 350, cool, dust with confectioner’s sugar. One hour from start to finish. Perfect. This time around, I made it with almonds...with Nick’s blessing. So good. Check the recipe section of Nick’s website to learn how to do it the right way. I suspect this will be a winner you’ll stay with, too.
February 24, 2018
The fabled La Fenice theater in Venice. Aptly named, “The Phoenix” has burned and been rebuilt many times since it opened its doors in the late 18th century, since it hosted the premieres of Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851) and La Traviata (1853). Here it is the night I went to hear a concert (before the theater burned again in 1996, arson this time), not caring overly much what the music or who the composer (Ciakovski) was, just wanting to enter the stunning jewel box of a hall. I’d bought my ticket earlier in the day, then returned that evening, took my seat (next to a chatty woman who’d come in by train from her home in Verona). The lights went down, the music began. I recognized it. Tchaikovsky! Just as I had been fooled earlier when I discovered that all my favorite Titian paintings seemed to be attributed to someone named Tiziano, I was once again humbled by Italian spelling.
February 23, 2018
When we arrived in Córdoba on the rápido train from Madrid, we hoisted our bags and headed for the centro. Still looking like the Arab city it once was, the city offered small streets and alleys bordered by chock-a-block stuccoed houses, whitewash all over their thick walls (to keep out the heat), all containing an interior central courtyard. Here’s the view from our pensión, where the senora warned us not to eat the oranges when we’d admired them. “Muy fuerte,” she said. Could they have been the bitter oranges used to make marmalade? Or was she just trying to keep us from sampling?
February 22, 2018
I’m not much given to luxury. It makes me uncomfortable. (In fancy restaurants, I’d much rather speak with the kitchen staff than with some snooty hostess or wine expert. While running in the nicer sections of my town, I’m usually much more at ease with the landscaping crew than I am with the homeowners.) However, I make an exception for the laid-back comfort provided by Windstar Cruises. Take for example, this on-board dinner at Le Marché, the outdoor, top-deck dining option on our recent cruise. A Greek island port twinkling in the background, a temperate evening that invited all things al fresco, an early dining time to insure some privacy, the sushi appetizer, the shellfish combo, the low-key friendliness of Ony and the other servers...and knowing that I was enjoying this while wearing a Ralph Lauren sport jacket that cost me all of $3 at a Boston thrift shop. In such heady surroundings, it’s good to maintain one’s perspective.
February 21, 2018
Look closely and you’ll notice that this is another in a series of jumping pictures. Easy for the jumper to get lost in all this faded grandeur though. These public thermal baths were built in the early 3rd century during the reign of the emperor whose name they bear, and they remained in use until the 6th century sack of Rome by the Ostrogoths. But you knew that. At one time they encompassed several swimming pools (with polished bronze mirrors that directed the sunlight into the water for warmth), boxing gymnasiums, even libraries. Early images of the vast structure provided the inspiration for the design of Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station (before the late 20th-century Ostrogoths sacked that architectural wonder, too.) Since 1937, the baths have provided the setting each summer for musical events, most notably and appropriately for performances of Verdi’s Aida. And, for better or worse, the site provided the location on July 7, 1990, the eve of that year’s FIFA World Cup Final, for the first of many concerts given by The Three Tenors (Domingo, Pavarotti, Carreras) and the marketing phenomenon that came in its wake (and the subsequent antitrust action by the US Federal Trade Commission against some 3.10 business dealings that were judged, well, operatic.)
February 20, 2018
Çiya. The best place Nick and I ate in Istanbul. We’d heard of this casual restaurant (where Chef Musa Dağdeviren hunts down and serves up acclaimed dishes from central and eastern Turkey) from the food writings of both Paula Wolfert and Oleana chef Ana Sortun, and we wasted no time in trying it. Our first full day in town, we were right there, asking waiter “John Travolta” to bring us an assortment of dishes he recommended. What a good idea! Among the many, many dishes we shared was this stew of lamb, bread and sour cherries. Others were a vegetable-and-herb-studded pilaf enclosed in a pastry shell. A spicy homemade meat and grain sausage. A soup of tiny ravioli-like manti in a minted yogurt base. And we were so delighted, we returned a few days later to do the same thing all over again. Even as I write this, years later, planning another trip to this magical city, my mouth still waters in anticipation.
February 19, 2018
I love when my friends’ paths cross. Even remotely. Here’s my pal Ted (a former Bose-o like me) standing within the Snake Bridge (as Tucson residents familiarly refer to it) that was designed by my friend Simon. Cool. On a recent visit to Tucson, I’d had breakfast with Ted (who’d driven south from his Phoenix home) at the Little Cafe Poca Cosa, then ambled around downtown, along 4th Avenue, winding up at the Epic Cafe to pass a lazy afternoon with lemonade, iced coffee and enjoyable conversation. Somewhere in between we squeezed in a visit to the bridge, now one of the city’s most recognizable and beloved icons. Its internal geometry and midday shadows almost cry out “photo op!” We obliged.
February 18, 2018
All right, I will eat my words. I have held the Boston MFA in somewhat low regard, calling it very JV, lacking in any real masterpieces, etc. After several visits in the summer of 2010, I thought it a fine place to pass the time, walking among the ancient art of Egypt, the large hall of Italian Renaissance pictures, the occasional French Impressionist. But nothing stood out, took my breath away. All that has changed with the opening of the museum’s new American Wing. Of course the masterpieces would be American, hidden away while these impressive new galleries were under construction. When I recently returned, saw the new wing for the first time, I gasped upon entering the gallery and was confronted by this. John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark. One of my forgotten favorites, positioned for optimum effect, and quite shocking against Copley’s more sedate and formal portraits for which he’d gained his reputation as a society painter. Based on a true story of a 14-year-old cabin boy’s disastrous 1749 swim in Havana harbor (the tale related to Copley by that same grown-up cabin boy when they became friends years later in London), it contains Cuban geographical elements from a place Copley had never been. The artist had also never seen a shark, much less one on the attack, but you’d never know it. What a painting! (Note: If all goes as planned, I will arrive in Havana today for the first time. Harbor swimming not on the itinerary.)
February 17, 2018
There are few things as evocative as the art nouveau design and lettering of the Paris metro. The first line opened in 1900 during the Paris World Exposition, grew to more than 133 miles of track and 384 stops during the next 40 years, and since then has gone on to become the second busiest subway system in the world (only Moscow’s is busier.) And still, with its clearly color-coded maps and signs, it remains among the easiest international systems to decipher. On film, many directors have paid homage to the metro, including François Truffaut and the Coen Brothers. All aswirl and suggestive of its turn-of-the-century beginnings, here’s the entrance to the station at the equally evocative location, Bastille. And when you emerge from the metro here, you’ll be very close to the daily street market (lots of oysters, lots of lobsters just before New Year’s Eve), the new opera house and the wonderful brasserie, Bofinger.
February 16, 2018
I’m not a voracious meat-eater. But every once in awhile, nothing seems to satisfy as much. So when Nick suggested a trip to this BBQ joint in the Williamsburg neighborhood, I was delighted. Fette Sau is hip (like its location) and basic and good. You enter what seems to have once been an auto-repair shop and approach the counter. A chalkboard indicates what’s available that day, and the server puts a piece of butcher paper on a metal tray and loads it up with your selections. No plates. We got (clockwise from lower left) pulled pork, half-sour pickles, flank steak, sausages, broccoli salad, ribs and pork belly. (The hamburger buns we left; we were both dieting.) Rolls of paper towels on the picnic tables (both inside and out) and utensils as needed. A complete bar tended by a real sweetheart completes the scene. This meat-heavy meal is probably not for everyday...but I can’t wait to return.
February 15, 2018
The tiny side streets that lead into the Praça de Figueira in downtown Lisbon serve up a rich roster of visual delights. One offers several 19th-century hardware stores, another features storefronts displaying prepared foods to go, a third is a nightly gathering place for streetwalkers of all varieties. There’s also the fancy men’s hat shop. And the store with its front window filled with hanging dried sausages. One of my favorite places is Hortelão, this seed and garden shop that borders the square. The inside is just as “casual” as the outside would indicate, with bins of bulbs, racks of seed packets, salespeople who look like they’ve been there since the day the store opened and who know their business as few others do. And I love that their sign makes the fine distinction found in the languages of many European countries between hortas (kitchen or vegetable gardens) and jardins (flower or decorative gardens.)
February 14, 2018
Whenever I hear someone talking about how immoral America has become, I laugh. [Note: I wrote this in 2011; I no longer laugh in 2018.] Violent video games and relatively tepid nudity in films may seem loose to some, but only because of an underlying Puritanism that still seems to serve as an American benchmark. Whenever I travel to a warmer, more sensual European destination -- be it Italy, Portugal, Spain, even France -- I’m reminded of just how straight-laced and conservative we are at home (and becoming frighteningly more so.) Maybe that’s why I love this photo of a couple in this beautiful Roman square. Not because it’s a good photograph, not at all, but because it makes me smile, thinking about how natural it is to see affection like this as you walk through Rome. Or Paris. Or Lisbon, Barcelona. A little later, as I walked by these two again, they were both sitting up, he was trying to nuzzle her ear, she was saying (but not meaning) “basta.” I wondered who they were, did they live at home with their parents and were they only able to meet here in public? Fellini said he liked to take the bus in Rome because he saw little dramas when he looked at his fellow passengers. I like to walk when I’m in Rome, seeing little dramas like this one all the time. Happy St. Valentine’s Day.
February 13, 2018
There’s a lawlessness in Tucson that I find very appealing. It’s not quite like the James Gang ridin’ into Tombstone, pistols blazing. It’s more like tattoos and warm-weather drinkers and edgy types just hanging out. On a recent visit, I noticed more condom wrappers on the ground, along with spent nitrous oxide (laughing gas) cartridges, though usually not together. I also noticed many more signs outside just about every bar and restaurant, alerting patrons that guns were verboten within. Did some new firearms law get passed? Is a sign really going to prevent a six-shooter’s appearance at the bar...or better yet, on the bar? Most of the signs, like this one, seem to laugh at themselves, suggesting that the premises owners are acknowledging the law, but only just barely. Whatever. I didn’t actually hear any guns being fired. But then, I was only there five days.
February 12, 2018
When it comes to finding the best ice cream in Rome, everyone you ask seems to have a different favorite. So the only foolproof way to a correct answer? Try every place yourself. OK! Among our favorites, the old standbys: Giolitti, where I sampled my first gelato autentico, several flavors (I’m sure hazelnut was one of them) built vertically onto a cake cone until you think it can hold no more. Then they ask you if you want panna, yes, so they put whipped cream on the very top. Plus a triangular wafer! No wonder this place is always crowded. Another favorite, the mela stregata (witch’s apple) at, where else, Biancaneve (Snow White), a neighborhood gelateria of long standing. Another wonderful memory from my first trip to Rome in 1980 was the famed tartufo served here at Tre Scalini on the Piazza Navona. A brandied cherry surrounded by chocolate ice cream, which is bathed in a chocolate coating and rolled in chopped pieces of chocolate. Topped with panna, of course. To me, no real truffle has ever tasted as good or as memorable.
February 11, 2018
When you can’t find the time to travel to other parts of the world, chances are that some of those places have found the time to travel to you. An example: the Yasmin Levy concert I attended on a cold winter night just miles from my home. Backed by a flamenco guitarist from Scotland, an Armenian virtuoso on clarinet, duduk and zurna (flute- and Middle-Eastern-horn-like instruments), an electric bassist from Ghana and her Israeli percussionist husband, the very pregnant Turkish-Israeli Levy charmed the crowd with her mix of Spanish and Ladino songs and her entertaining personal forays into storytelling (in English, Spanish and French) for context. She introduced one number as “the saddest song...ever,” but managed to leaven the playlist with some upbeat takes that had the audience clapping and singing melodically in Spanish at one point. Ladino is the collective term for the Judeo-Spanish languages spoken by the Jewish diaspora forced from Spain in 1492 that absorbed linguistic influences from their new countries: Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Slavic, Portuguese, French, Italian and Hebrew. Levy has assumed as her mission to keep the dying Ladino language alive through song. And judging from the packed house and the line to buy her CDs afterwards, she’s doing just that.
February 10, 2018
Is this Tippi Hedren? She wishes. Alas, it is one of the many thousands of people who find themselves in the beautiful Renaissance city of Florence and who also find themselves surrounded by thousands of pigeons. Fed over the centuries by countless tourists with good hearts, these dirty birds now have a sense of entitlement bred into them that would rival that of any Hapsburg princess or Kardashian sister. Photo ops notwithstanding, what’s the point? Look at this poor woman outside the basilica of Santa Maria Novella. I remember she wanted her picture taken among the birds. She got much more than she bargained for. In 2006, the Florentine municipal authorities, recognizing the hazard that these birds pose for people, as well as for statues and monuments, imposed a 50-euro fine for anyone caught feeding the pigeons in public squares. (A similar ban went into effect in Venice two years later.) Not sure what the results have been, but I imagine that there may be at least a bit more light in the piazzas.
February 9, 2018
Teresa, a Spanish cookbook author and restaurateur friend of Nick’s, had provided us with an interesting list of places to eat when in Madrid. I especially wanted to eat Basque cuisine, so I paid attention when she, a Basque native, mentioned that Currito was her favorite. We emerged from a nearby metro station in the middle of an evening downpour and took refuge under a leaky awning, trying to make sense of the map on my iPod Touch. A few false turns, some directions offered by pitying locals, and we found it within a nearby park. Worth all the effort. The food and service were exceptional. Including this chuletón, a big grilled steak, sliced and brought to the table on a hot stoneware platter on which it continues to cook. The chef came out to chat, gave us his handwritten recipe for Salmorejo Cordobés, which we had expressed an interest in, showed us what salt cod looked and felt like before and after soaking, and even walked us to the back door of the kitchen to point out a closer metro stop. The rain had stopped. We were full and happy.
February 8, 2018
Granted, most people come to Assisi to admire the Giotto frescoes. To follow in the footsteps of native son San Francesco. Or maybe to visit the nearby resting place of his Facebook friend Santa Chiara, patron saint of television (no joke). Well, we did all of those things. But then Miriam, Nick and I took some paths less traveled in this beautiful Umbrian hilltown. Good meals, visits to friendly proprietors of local pastry shops (Nick was researching his Great Italian Desserts book) and then just some ordinary things like dropping into a hardware store (where I bought one of those clicking ignitors for manually lit gas stoves, which I still use today.) And this. A reminder of how completely gaga tutto Italia was about the King of Pop’s tour. He continued to dog us for the rest of our Italian visit. And the first leg of my journey home (a flight from Torino to Zurich) was actually dominated by his staff and technical crew on their way to the next gig. Michael, it seems, had arranged private transportation.
February 7, 2018
I don’t particularly like to drive. So a vacation perk for me is not having to get behind the wheel, not having to think about the responsibility of driving, of parking. Give me public transportation every time. I’ve only had to drive twice in all of my times in Europe, and one of those times was only for 20 minutes (when my friend Antonio asked me to take a car from his home in the country into the city of Lucca.) Tracking down information with Nick for his Great Italian Desserts book, we needed a car to access smaller towns and to cover long distances in an efficient way. (Aside from what was a nightmare-inducing, mile-high drive over the excessively windy and cliff-hanging highway en route to Calabria, it was pretty much non-threatening.) But I opt for the train (especially in Europe) every time I can. Or the bus. Or to fly on one of the new cheap intra-Europe airlines like Spanair (one hour from Madrid to Santiago de Compostela) or Vueling (20 minutes on our day-trip from Barcelona to the island of Mallorca, seen here.) Letting others do the “driving” means a real vacation for me.
February 6, 2018
This is my friend George expressing wonder and delight at a wedding vehicle in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I met him in Boston before he moved west, and he kindly hosted me when I hit SFO for the first time. (He was a better host than I was a guest, I’m afraid.) He was also a big Mia Farrow fan, and back in Boston in 1979, when I was working at WGBH-TV, l learned that Farrow and Anthony Perkins (they were then starring onstage in the Boston tryout of Romantic Comedy) were coming into the station for an interview. I arranged for us to sit in. And then, in the lobby as they were leaving, I decided, now or never, to introduce my friend to the actress. “Miss Farrow, I’d like to introduce George Hatzis, a big fan of yours. He’s seen everything from Guns at Batasi to Hurricane.” George, never shy, blurted out, “No I haven’t. I don’t even know what Guns at Batasi is.” She smiled, looked at me and kindly said, “But you do.”
February 5, 2018
During the early spring of 1992, a friend introduced me to photographer Joel (Cape Light) Meyerowitz in a Provincetown bookstore. We started chatting and when I mentioned that I was planning a trip to Ireland, Meyerowitz interrupted, “You must go to Achill Island!” Um, OK. Here was one of the world’s great seers making a recommendation. Of course, I’d go. So when my father and I were in the Old Country a few months later, that's where we headed. One look and I knew why Meyerowitz had been so charmed. Muted, pearlescent light. Expanses of sea, sand, sky. Limited palette. Space. It was off season and this beach was abandoned except for an inveterate surfer and his two dogs. But it was easy to see why this is a favorite summer excursion for locals when the weather and the sea warm up.
February 4, 2018
I am an all-or-nothing kind of guy. Sometimes that’s good, often not. This time it was good. A few years ago, I was checking out the world-music shelves at my local library and found a CD by a Portuguese fado singer with remarkable hair -- platinum blonde, plastered-down tides of finger waves. I took a chance. One listen and I was hooked. I wound up getting all of Mariza’s albums right away, checked her out on YouTube (and found I was not alone in my enthusiasm) and bought tickets to see her three times within the year on her swings through Massachusetts: Amherst, New Bedford and Boston. My two trips to Lisbon were initially prompted by the appeal of her songs. (She was out of town for each of my visits to her hometown: once in Switzerland, once in Japan.) Mariza does not yet have the fan base here that she enjoys in Europe (where it borders on madness), and so her Bay State venues were smaller and more intimate, her smokey deep voice easily filling the halls even without amplification. And here in New Bedford, with its sizable Portuguese population, there was a special connection with the audience at the Zeiterion. Just check out the local sponsors for her concert and you’ll get an idea what I’m talking about. (We ate at Antonio’s, but more on that another time.)
February 3, 2018
I love the street food in Istanbul. Yes, there are simit sellers early every morning offering their sesame-studded bread rings (sometimes from carts, sometimes from trays balanced on their heads) to willing buyers throughout the city. But as the morning wears on, other vendors appear selling mussels with a squeeze of lemon, various fruit juices, kumpir (baked potatoes with an assortment of toppings) or misir (roasted and salted corn on the cob), which is what this young woman is selling on Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian thoroughfare, very near the Galatasaray high school and so, near a lot of hungry teenagers looking for a quick snack that happens to be healthy. A bargain, too, at 1.5 Turkish lira or roughly 95 American cents (though away from this prime location, you can find it even cheaper.)
February 2, 2018
Mmmmm. Patatas bravas. Found on every tapas menu in Spain, from the most elegant big-city lounges to the simplest country tavern. (I’ve even had them at a “small plates” Spanish restaurant in Boston.) Of course, there are slight variations from region to region, bar to bar. But for my euro, no one does it quite so well as Tapas, 24 in Barcelona’s Eixample neighborhood. The starting point for all presentations is simple enough: sliced potatoes, deep fried, laced with a spicy tomato sauce. There is a related dish called patatas alioli which substitutes a garlicky mayonnaise for the tomato sauce. Tapas, 24 gives you both. Who doesn’t like fried potatoes? Even vegetarians can find happiness in meat-heavy Spain with a dish of these beauties. And one wonderful thing about tapas is that if you like something you’ve eaten, you can order another portion immediately. You will not be alone.
February 1, 2018
I value my private time when I travel. If I’m in Rome, I want to be among Romans, to speak and hear Italian. The same applies in Istanbul, Lisbon, Barcelona. I’m on vacation to be “away.” I want to get lost in the alleyways of Venice, the markets of Montreal, the medina of Tangier. Fortunately much of my travel has been solo. And at other times, my infrequent companions have (mostly) understood and indulged my preference. I don’t have to be on my own all of the time. But some of the time, yes. I need to escape anonymously into the city with my camera, to stop whenever I want, to be unconcerned about anyone else. And then to meet up for dinner. I live alone and I’m used to the wonderful luxury of time I have to think, to be silent. It’s one reason I have always avoided guided tours, why I was apprehensive for so many years about signing up for a cruise. (The Windstar cruises Jay and I’ve taken have mercifully provided ample opportunities for solitude. The upcoming group trip to Cuba, my fingers are crossed.)
January 31, 2018
Anyone familiar with Boston’s North Shore knows that you can’t attempt to eat at Woodman’s of Essex (“A Yankee Tradition since 1914”) during the summer without encountering lines of staggering lengths. Hot and covered with suntan oil and sand, families try to mollify their antsy kids while waiting for freshly steamed lobsters, fried clams, fried everything. Yes, there are other such emporiums in the vicinity, but their lines are not as long, and there’s a good reason for that. Woodman’s, aside from staking a claim as “inventor of the fried clam” (on July 3, 1916, to be exact), serves up the freshest, most skillfully cooked seafood in the area. And if the high prices don’t jive with the plastic plates and utensils, so what. We live not far from Woodman’s, but we only attempt to eat there off season. Each December 30, it’s our tradition to arrive at the near-empty eatery around 7pm for a day-after-birthday treat: the “Down River” fried combo plate ($26.95 in 2011; $3 more this year: clams, shrimp, scallops, fish, fries, fried onion rings), a golden mountain of delight (seen being assembled here) that never fails to please.
January 30, 2018
Frequent readers of this blog may think that all I did in Barcelona was eat. Not so. Witness this wonderful community arts center that Jay and I visited (OK, on the way to a nearby restaurant) at Carrer Comerç, 36 in the El Born/La Ribera district of the city. A former monastery (started in 1349, completed in 1700), the building has recently been renovated by the city as the Centre Civic Convent Sant Agustí, fitted out with a bar/cafe, gallery and meeting rooms used by locals. It is enchanting. On the warm evening we visited, there was a gallery opening in one wing, a concert by neighborhood musicians in another, a lively scene in the bar and a genuinely welcoming spirit among those just hanging out in the former cloister, seen here.