One of the first words I learned in Italian was Standa, the name of a department store with branches throughout the country. Travelers who need to stock up on basics -- toothpaste, shampoo, even groceries -- can usually find what they need at Standa. At least I always did. And it was a great place to wander, to read labels to see what things were called in Italian. Another of the first words I learned in Italian was sciopero. It means “strike.” And along with guasto (“broken”), it’s a word you’re very likely to see frequently while traveling in Italy. I’ve encountered scioperi many, many times on my trips there. The most memorable one was when I was spending a few days in Agrigento, Sicily, where all shops, all public transportation, everything was set to close for a full day. I prepared by stocking up on cold cuts, bread, fruit. But I needn’t have bothered. When I awoke on strike day, I found my nearby cafe with its security grate pulled down, but only part-way, and locals simply bending down in order to get under and inside for their morning coffee. I guess Sicilians, maybe all Italians, take a casual approach to lo sciopero as they seem to do with many other things, too. An excellent way to live.
April 21, 2018
For the longest time, I tried to distance myself from my Irish heritage. Yes, I’d been to the Emerald Isle twice over the years, and each time I had to laugh at how very green it was, comically so. But I was just too uncomfortable with childhood memories of unspoken family resentments, tacky St. Patrick’s Day decorations, and all those songs my father would enforce upon us. Maybe I just needed someone whose approach was a bit more subtle, more gentle. Maybe Colm Tóibín. The Irish novelist swept me away from the minute I read the first page of his The Blackwater Lightship, and the luxurious undertow has continued through each novel and collection since. A master of captivating, unobstructed storytelling (you’re never aware of a “writer at work”), his tales of what he calls “almost-ness” strike a real chord in me. So when he appeared in Boston recently for a Q&A with novelist Christopher Castellani (left) and a later talk and reading (a performance really) of his story “Two Women,” I was in the front row for each. My family always used the expression “the gift of Blarney” as a way of saying someone had the knack of spinning a good yarn. And while he may not call it something that obvious, Tóibín sure has got it.
April 20, 2018
My mother was Irish-American and not a remarkable cook. She kept our family fed, and varied the food we ate to make sure we didn’t get bored with “the same old thing.” Period. As I learned more about food (especially about the food that my friend Nick’s Italian-American mother served), I realized that there were few of my mother’s recipes that I would like to save. Only one, actually. Her lemon bread pudding was a wonderful dish that remains happily in memory. When I moved away from home, I asked her for the recipe. She hesitated, then stalled for months, years. I pestered and she finally said she’d send the recipe. She didn’t. (Did I mention she was Irish?) Years later, on the afternoon following her funeral, when my brother and I were sitting quietly at home, I spotted an old “diary” from 1962, something my mother used to stash clippings and coupons and such. As I picked it up, a sheet of paper slid out and fell to the floor. The recipe. Finally. It’s still the best example of this homey dessert I’ve found, not for want of searching. Above, my most recent taste-test, the banana-chocolate bread pudding from the wonderful (and mercifully close) Russo’s. Among the baked goods on offer, their ciabatta-like Rustic Bread cannot be beat. But their bread pudding can be.
April 19, 2018
When I studied French in high school and college, the textbooks always contained “conversations” from which to learn. The most memorable one for me was “au restaurant” with Pierre and Philippe. The resto they spoke about: Bofinger. So, when Nick and I were in Paris a few years ago, we had to go. Bofinger is a storied brasserie near the Bastille, serving up, as all brasseries do, great platters of shellfish followed by equally great platters of sausages, sauerkraut, boiled vegetables. Brasseries were originally large beer halls, which later started to add food to their offerings, soon settling on what has now become their standard fare. The Parisian classics are Brasserie Lipp (favored by Hemingway), Brasserie Flo, Au Pied de Cochon, La Coupole, many more. But for me (as for Pierre and Philippe), Bofinger will always be the one. “On y mange très bien, paraît-il,” if I remember my textbook correctly, “One eats very well there.” Oui.
April 18, 2018
La vida real. That’s what I wanted to see when I visited Cuba. Real life. When I visit anywhere, actually. Alas, in order to travel to the Pearl of the Antilles legally, I had to go as part of a US State Department-licensed group, and our time and activities were scheduled morning, noon and (sometimes) night. On one of the free nights, I was traveling solo though Central Havana and met Hanoi, a Santería diviner, who guided me through the shadowy byways of his neighborhood, places unwise for a gringo to negotiate alone, especially at night. As we walked down one such calle, I could see a shining storefront ahead, a bright beacon in the darkness, a barbershop. Could I take a picture? Hanoi asked his neighbors, they were gracious, this is the result. ¿La vida real? Un poquito.
April 17, 2018
I have running routes in many of my favorite cities, none more treasured than this one in Tucson. From Simon and David’s house, down through the neighborhoods (where everyone seems to have at least one barking dog; I only know the hyperactive chihuahua Muchachito by name), along Congress Street and onto the path that follows this dried-up river bed. Then it’s out through desert landscape to the prison and back, about five miles total. But all of it is flat. And warm. A nice treat to run in shorts and a T-shirt mornings in early March. And while my wildlife sightings are usually limited to other runners, cyclists and the occasional prison work crew, I’ve often see quail, prairie dogs and rabbits, even some cartoon-like roadrunners and coyotes along the way. I start out along the A Mountain side (see it there on the right?) and cross the river for my return, passing behind Mexican-American homes with chickens and horses. And, of course, more dogs. And because the air is so dry, you do break a sweat, but it evaporates almost instantly.
April 16, 2018
The first time I went to Rome, I was shocked when I saw SPQR on buildings, on municipal trash barrels, on manhole covers like this one. I’d always associated these imperial initials only with the glory that was the early Roman Republic, with the Caesars, Marc Antony, Nero, Spartacus. Senatus Populusque Romanus, the senate and people of Rome. It appears on ancient coins, monuments and on the standards of Roman legions. (My friend Janet’s mother had it as her vanity license plate years ago, which might tell you something about the woman’s parenting style.) Who knew that it still existed, still meant the same thing in the 20th century? I was also shocked to see that this cover was made in Florence, a longtime Roman rival in the fields of politics, culture and sport. So it came as less of a surprise when a Tuscan friend told me that many in the north of Italy translate SPQR as Sono porchi questi Romani. “What pigs these Romans are!” Nice.
April 15, 2018
Years ago, when our friends Tom and Paul asked if we’d like to join them at a party at Red Roof near our Gloucester home, we leapt at the chance. The party was an annual one thrown by the multiple owners of the historic house, complete with great food from a local BBQ joint, live music, a talent show in one of the outbuildings and a relatively open house for the curious like me. (I ran right to Isabella Stewart Gardner’s room and to the secret library, filled with stacks of old French Red Cross posters and accessed by pressing a hidden button to activate the sliding bookcase.) Built in 1902 by A. Piatt Andrew (Harvard economics professor, founder of the American Field Service during WWI, director of the U.S. Mint, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Republican member of Congress and local legend -- the bridge into Gloucester bears his name), the house has a gym on the top floor accessed only by the fit via rope ladder. (It also had at one time, we were told, an underground tunnel to Beauport next door, allowing clandestine trysts at the home of Andrew’s fellow gay pal Henry Davis Sleeper.) The elaborate stonework in the back descends to the water and includes six terraces and a natural saltwater swimming pool. I recently paid another visit to Red Roof, this time to an estate sale when Andrew’s heirs put the storied home up for sale. My pieces of history: a necktie I found in a closet and book from the 1920s (inscribed in French) from Mrs. Gardner’s bookcase.
April 14, 2018
The air was moisture-heavy as I set out on my exploratory run that Wednesday morning. Remembering enough Italian to ask directions, I headed along the port, off toward the Municipal Museum, hoping to chart a course that Jay and I would later walk to find the two Caravaggios (both new to me) housed there. I passed fishermen selling their early-morning catch from small boats, pocket-sized produce markets laden with the season’s first artichokes and persimmons, a few parks and, finally, the museum. Surprise! Mercoledi chiuso. Closed Wednesdays. Oh, well. Guess I’ll have to return to Messina some other time, some other day. It started to drizzle and I returned to the boat after a nice run to find the dock wet and reflective. Just like me.
April 13, 2018
Some people take to jumping pictures more enthusiastically than others. Witness this photo of my two friends Barbara (left) and Dali. It didn’t take much more than a hot second to get Barbara mid-air. Dali, who first turned me on to this kind of photo, must have gotten a slow start this time because normally she’s airborne without any prompting. The folks here at the Lincoln Memorial didn’t seem to notice or even care that we took shot after bouncing shot like this. A memorable weekend trip from New England, the first and only time these two ladies got together. Dali was my first friend and helping hand when I moved to Boston. Barbara was the sassy secretary of the Georgetown University English department when I was a graduate student there, and we clicked immediately. (Barbara, if you’re out there and seeing this, please get in touch. Or at least jump up and down.)
April 12, 2018
During my first stay at Vincent Price’s home, he told me several stories about Old Hollywood that he knew would hold me in thrall. One was that he had been refused admission to the legendary Hollywood haunt, The Brown Derby, when he arrived one night in the 1930s with Anna May Wong. The management said she was “colored.” (The Los Angeles-born actress was Chinese American.) Another tale took place many years later when an autograph seeker came over to Vincent while he was dining in a restaurant and asked for his signature. He made pleasant conversation, graciously signed the young lady’s book and continued eating, only to be interrupted by the same person, complaining, “You signed it ‘Dolores Del Rio.’” Yes, Vincent explained, “Just before Dolores died, she begged, ‘Please don’t let them forget me.’”
April 11, 2018
My friend Peter Madden has been collecting things since he was a child. In a good way. So good, in fact, that many of them have found their way into the wonderful artworks he’s been producing for years now. Peter is generally recognized as one of the trailblazers of artists’ books and the two included in the show I saw this day were exceptional -- hand-sewn pages within hinged wooden covers display his witty narrative skills, his twisted Catholic background and his ability to find beauty in objects that others might pass by. A small key found on a windowsill. A matchbook from a dangerous bar recommended by a late-nite transvestite. The quirkily fastidious documentation of a romance gone south. Wonderful all. Seen here, part of half of a recent work, a collection of fruit stickers, assembled and fixed, serving as the “negative” for a cyan print (the second half of the work) that turns the colorful display into a blue-and-white study of geometric wordless shapes. He’s clearly found his “voice” and continues to extend it. Nice work, Peter.
April 10, 2018
Long before bling became a thing here in the states, the Romans were high-stepping with these extravagant, twinkling heels. And while they may not be made for distance walking, these little accessories sure did light up the window of this shoe store (one of many in shoe-conscious Rome.) Why didn’t this glittery high-heel “look” ever catch on here stateside? Different strokes. I was once told that the only sure-fire way to spot a tourist in Italy or Spain is to look at his or her shoes. Try it, as I have, and I think you’ll find this axiom valid. The German tourists wear practical and completely unfashionable hiking shoes. Ditto the English and, mercy, the Swiss. The French must be taken on a case-by-case basis. I should talk. I wear sneakers almost all the time because of the great amount of walking I do. (I switch to black sneakers for evening wear.) But no one beats the Italians and the Spanish. The old, the young, even in the supermarket or out walking the dog, these leather lovers sport loafers, lace-ups and boots that command respect and set them apart.
April 9, 2018
Look at these guys, “noble ancestors of Christ” if we can believe the guide, all decked out in their bold geometric prints. Hard to believe that such modern designs were in fashion back in 1315 when the mosaics here in the Holy Savior in Chora church were created. Sometimes mistranslated as Saint Savior, this Byzantine church (first built in the 5th century, converted to a mosque in the 16th, and made into a secular museum in 1948) is one of the glories of Istanbul. A bit out of the way (chora = the country; the church was originally outside the city walls), but your efforts to get there will be rewarded by an up-close visual spectacle unlike any other in this visually spectacular city. The tour groups are all back in the city center, too, so take your time and enjoy the uncrowded show. And, if you like, top it off with a superb lunch at Asitane right next door.
April 8, 2018
When I look back through my photos from trips to Italy over the years, I’m always amazed at the formality that some of my Italian friends assumed as I focused the camera. Stiff postures. Unsmiling faces. Rarely do they look into the camera. What gives? Is this some cultural thing instilled in them from childhood? This photo is not of friends of mine. It’s a group of card-playing men I saw in Sicily, and look...not a smiling face among them. Isn’t anyone having any fun on this mild evening in one of the most beautiful squares in Catania, named for the town’s hero-son, the composer of such operatic works as La Sonnambula and Norma. (Nearby, earlier that evening, I’d dined on Pasta alla Norma, a namesake dish made with rich tomato sauce and slices of fried eggplant.) These guys are clearly no-nonsense types when it comes to cards, and I remember being somewhat hesitant to take the picture. (As an aside, there had been a police/Mafia shootout in another Catania square earlier the same day.) I suspect that the pasta dish must have given me the little bit of operatic courage I needed.
April 7, 2018
Tucson has always been the most inked city I’ve ever visited. But this time I even saw a car that had been tattooed. This sporty number was stopped at a red light on a warm evening along the Saturday night place to be, 4th Avenue. We’d just come from some gallery openings and a pizza dinner at the packed Brooklyn Pizza Company when this eye-popping vehicle materialized. And as the driver was clearly enjoying the attention he was getting from the crowd, he took his time moving on when the light turned green, earning him some honking from envious motorists behind him and cheers from young enthusiasts on the avenida, many of them abundantly inked themselves.
April 6, 2018
Where in the world are we? One thing (just the first) that was initially confusing upon docking in Piraeus was our having to rely on signage not only in a different language but in a different alphabet. Our ship pulled in here to the port that has served Athens since antiquity early in the morning, midway through our Istanbul-Rome cruise. And we’d planned to hop the metro into Athens 15 minutes away, climb to the Acropolis, work our way downhill through the Plaka, see the market, buy some gyros, some yogurt, then head back to the boat. And that’s exactly what we did, alphabet notwithstanding. Nice to visit this bustling city with no luggage in tow, no hotel room to find. And nice to collapse in our stateroom upon our return.
April 5, 2018
OK, since you asked. Here are the snows of yesteryear. Or at least one of them. A count-your-blessings tribute to 2012’s “winter that wasn’t.” Unlike a year ago, when our Watertown yard looked pretty much as our old Cambridge one did here 30 years back. Winter 2011 was brutal and relentless, not good for runners like me. Also not good for drivers (not like me.) It sure did make one long to be anywhere but here. Preferably someplace sunny, warm, with good food and a language other than English? Maybe that’s why we were un poco envious of happy for our friends David and George who enjoyed a Costa Rican cruise. Or why we’re thinking that it’s about time for us to plan our next vacation. Sailing from Venice to Barcelona? With maybe a little Croatia and Sicily en route? No snowshovels needed.
April 4, 2018
I love Paris. The first time I visited was in 1969, the summer after my junior year in college. My French was minimal, limited to textbook conversations from school and the libretto to Bizet’s Carmen. I checked into the Grand Hotel des Balcons near Place de l’Odeon (it was cheap in those days) and had a great time, drinking red wine, eating French fries and couscous and I can’t remember what else. Visiting again three years later, my friend Robert and I checked into another cheap hotel nearby and used Paris as the base for our day trips to Reims, Fontainebleau, Dijon and other nearby cities. Some 33 years passed before I visited again, this time during Christmas week with Nick, ostensibly to attend a New Year’s Eve party given by Dorie and her husband. As you can tell from this photo (snapped on the unseasonably warm last day of December, even though it had snowed the day before), I love Paris. Every moment of the year.
April 3, 2018
Meet Ahmad, proprietor of Yasin Culinary, the catering business at which he also teaches occasional classes in Syrian-Arabic cooking. Ahmad grew up on a farm in Syria, so he knows the value and importance of fresh, home-grown ingredients. (He also ran a revered restaurant near my home for years that attracted notables from the food world long before the word “foodie” regrettably entered the lexicon. Because he’s a neighbor, I often see him working his sizable vegetable garden, coaxing his plants to forget that New England has a pitifully limited growing season.) The night that I took my first class with him, we made the dish you see him preparing here: Rummaniyya, a main course of chicken in a pomegranate sauce. The sweetness of honey, the tartness of pomegranate molasses, the bite of hot pepper and garlic, the warmth of cumin, all of these combine with tomatoes and mint to achieve the balance of flavors that distinguishes the cooking he grew up with. When the class was over and we’d finished eating what we’d made, there wasn’t a spoonful left on the platter.
April 2, 2018
When you’ve got a good thing going, run with it. In this case, the town of Ávila and its most famous resident, Santa Teresa. She is a major tourist draw to this beautiful walled city, and so it’s no surprise that her name appears everywhere. Farmacia Santa Teresa. Café Santa Teresa. Hotel Santa Teresa. Even the gazpacho at this small restaurant. On our brief visit to Ávila, we sought out the famed sweets called yemas. Made from, it seems, egg yolks and sugar and little else (a few grains of cinnamon, a drop of lemon juice), they were not entirely to my liking and so I was glad that the saleslady had offered me a sample, saving me from having to buy an entire box. The name of the store? Yemas de Santa Teresa, of course.
April 1, 2018
I have written here before about my first trip to Italy with my friend Dali. And about her way of taking photos of other people by posing near them and acting as if we weren’t even aware of their presence. We’d maneuvered photos this way at the Rome Zoo, in the Piazza Navona, all over Italy, in fact. This is one of my favorites. She had seen these three Sicilian men visiting the Forum in Rome and immediately went and posed extravagantly in front of them. I was so used to her hijinks at this point that I didn’t even need to ask, I just pointed my camera and shot. Can’t you feel her sense of naughty and joyous satisfaction?