March 20, 2018

Banner Hill, Gloucester, MA. March, 2011

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

Stoneham, MA. March 19, 2011

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

Miel, Boston Restaurant Week. March, 2011

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

Near Caherconnell, Ireland. May, 1992

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

Lisbon. October, 2009

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

Ischia, Italy. October, 2011

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

Lactuca, Barcelona. November, 2010

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

La Habana Vieja, Cuba. February, 2012

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

Cienfuegos, Cuba. February, 2012

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

Plaza de la Revolución, Habana, Cuba. February, 2012

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

La Bodeguito del Medio, Habana Vieja, Cuba. February, 2012

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

Plaza Major, Trinidad, Cuba. February, 2012

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

Cienfuegos, Cuba. February, 2012

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

El Malecón, Centro Habana, Cuba. February, 2012

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

Las Terrazas, Pinar del Rio, Cuba. February, 2012

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

La Habana Vieja, Cuba. February, 2012

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

Galata, Istanbul. June, 2007

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

Tucson. March, 2011

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

Tangier. November, 2010

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

North End, Boston. August, 1981

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.